Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The beef grown on soy and maize

“Fifty-five square feet of rainforest is destroyed for every quarter pound hamburger that comes from a cleared rainforest cattle farm.” This and similar statements express the hamburger connection, that meat eaters in Europe and United States contributes to deforestation, encouraged by agribusiness. The origin of the notion that the hamburger threatens the rainforest was a rapid expansion of cattle grazing, mainly for exports in several Central American countries, often established on earlier forested land. In Honduras forests shrank with 33,000 hectares while crop land also decreased as a result of more cattle grazing[i]. Overall, the production of food for the local market shrank as a result of this. And those who earned money from the cattle were not the ones that got less food. This process was repeated, but on a much larger scale, in Mato Grosso and adjacent states in Brazil, so there is a certain truth in the hamburger story. But by and large the expansion of livestock in the last decades is more driven by the expansion of soybeans and maize than by cattle grazing. The rearing of cattle meat is rapidly transforming itself from natural grazing to industrial feeding.

Pampas, the vast grasslands of Argentina, has since long been cattle country, and beef exports made Argentina to one of the ten richest countries of the world in the end of the 19th century. But today, the image of cows grazing idly is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Grain-fed, feedlot cattle are becoming an industry norm. Around a third of all Argentine beef now comes from cattle, which have been reared in grain-fed feedlots. In 2005, Argentina’s ranchers and farmers produced more than 3.1 million tonnes of beef, exporting some 745,000 tonnes to the world market. Argentina was the third-largest beef-exporting country (behind Brazil and Australia) in the world, still allowing its own population to eat the second most beef in the world. In March 2006, Argentina’s government – in an effort to lower the rising price of beef to its people – banned beef exports for 180 days. This was followed by a 15% export tax on fresh beef. The government assumed ranchers and farmers would continue to raise cheap beef. But instead, they cut their herds and converted their pastures to soybean production. To get two crops of soybeans per year instead of raising cattle for three years to be sold on a domestic market with artificially depressed prices, is a no-brainer for Argentinean landowners, who now mostly rent out their land to huge agribusiness operations. As a consequence, soybean acres increased in Argentina from 37.6 million acres in 2005 to more than 48 million acres in 2012. “Land that has been converted to soybean production is not going to go back to pasture,” says Carlos Becco, head of Soybean LAS for Syngenta in Argentina. “That land is worth too much now to be put back into permanent pasture”[ii] [iii].

Jack Erisman with grassfed cattle in Pana, Illinois
“It is like being a comedian, it is all about timing”. Jack Erisman explains how he manages the weeds in his organic fields in Pana, Illinois. He is swimming against the tide in the sea of maize. The Corn Belt has as the name suggests been conquered by corn, or maize as it more properly should be called. A century ago, even fifty years ago, farms in the Corn Belt were a lot more diverse. They all had their own cows and hogs, chicken and horses; there was pasture; and there were many people employed on the land. The land was good for maize and farms produced maize for a very low price. When chemical fertilizer became readily available and cheap after WWII they expanded their maize production. The maize could be bought by large specialized livestock operations; which in the end produced cheaper than the diverse farms leading to that one after one of those farms quit livestock production altogether. This led to a shift into monoculture maize, sometimes in rotation with soybean.

Meanwhile, livestock cattle breeding were divided in two stages. In the rolling hills of Montana you see cattle grazing everywhere. But if you look closer you will see that the only adult animals are the mother cows and the odd bull. Geneticists have still not succeeded in totally alienating cows and calves from the environment which is their natural habitat. This may be on their hit list for the future, but for now it doesn’t work well to lock up cows in pens and feed the calves from birth in feedlots, factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as they are called in the United States.. But when old enough, calves are sold as “feeder cattle” to these concentration camps where they are ending their lives in confinements, fed on maize for energy and soybean cake for protein. In this way the American beef is produced in three different sites, the Corn Belt, permanent pastures such as in Montana and finally in feed lots. Some feedlots in the United States now have more than 100,000 cattle[iv]. And this model is now successfully exported to Brazil and Argentina. The system is similar in Europe, but population density, zoning, environmental and animal welfare regulations puts limits on the size of factory farms.

In the fields of Jack there is also maize for sure. There are many varieties, blue, red, yellow, white and popcorn maize, all organically grown. He also grows soybeans, ray, wheat, clover, vetch and many more things in a seven year crop rotation. But his two hundred heads of Murray gray cattle, mixed with Angus are “grass-fed” and rarely eats any maize or soy. That he sells the grass-fed cattle meat for a premium price to a special market says a lot about how modern farming has developed, what is—what should be—normal has become an exclusive niche. Grass is still the best feed for cattle. Not only is it better for them, but it is also better for the eater if the beef or the cheese is “made of grass”. Grass-fed milk, meat or eggs contain better fats, such as higher levels of omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). And lately, some consumers show their appreciation of this by paying Jack a better price for grass fed beef, while other market forces coerce Argentinean farmers into plowing the Pampas and confining their cattle into feedlots.

[i] Diet and Delocalization: Dietary Changes since 1750, Gretel H. Pelto and Pertti J. Pelto, Journal of interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, 1983 pp. 507-528
[ii] Argentina Independent 2013, Argentina’s Beef Industry: A Fall From Grace, Sabrina Hummel, 30 May 2013. accessed 31 December
[iii] Beef 2013, Argentina Provides A Lesson In How to Ruin a Beef Industry, Sep. 26, 2013, Paul Queck,
[iv] Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, Meat Atlas.

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