Chasing a bum steer

Issue 

Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture

By Jeremy Rifkin

Dutton, 1992. 353 pp., $26.25

Reviewed by Dave Riley

As rural researcher Geoffrey Lawrence has pointed out, "Farmers do not care who buys, so long as someone buys." That food shipments destroy peasant agriculture or that Third World mothers mix imported milk powder with bacteria-ridden water and unintentionally kill their babies cannot be blamed on them. Where making a sale and obtaining a profit becomes the only guiding principle, there is a compulsion to sell commodities whatever the consequences.

Food and fibre are "things" sold for profit. Come sale day, out they go dead or alive.

There also would appear to be a fundamental contradiction emerging between the desires of individual farmers for profit and the need for clean air, fresh water and sustainable agriculture. But as the chairperson of the US Tennessee Valley Authority pointed out some years back, "on a discounted cash-flow basis, the earth is simply not worth saving".

Jeremy Rifkin takes up some of these aspects of modern agriculture in this devastating indictment of the beef industry. Here the buffalo gives way to the Big Mac and a plague of "hoofed locusts" spreads over the earth.

"There are currently 1.28 billion cattle populating the earth", he begins. "They take up nearly 24 percent of the planet and consume enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people." Rifkin insists that cattle are the gravest threat to the well-being of the earth. As a major cause of erosion in temperate regions, the primary factor in spreading desertification, a significant contributor to rainforest depletion, a chief source of organic pollution and a promoter of global warming, Rifkin would have us dismantle the worldwide cattle complex as a matter of urgency.

He develops the arguments advanced 20 years ago by food activists such as Frances Moore Lappe by starting from the fact that livestock, mostly cattle, consume twice as much grain in the United States as is eaten by the entire human population. In the US, two of the world's great agricultural regions existed side by side: a premier grazing bed and a rich granary. The increase in grain yields by 240% in the 40 years after World War II encouraged an explosion of "corned beef"; cattle were primed on grass and fattened on corn in giant automated feedlots.

In the meantime, worldwide human hunger increased by millions annually. "While the rich are dying from the diseases of affluence", he writes, "the poor of the planet languish for want of the bare essentials of life. The injustice imposed on the world by the twentieth-century protein chain is unprecedented: a billion people gorging and purging, mired in fat, while a billion more waste away, unable to provide their bodies with the minimum nutrient requirements necessary to maintain a healthy existence."

If you are looking for an excuse to forgo that hamburger or tender sirloin, Rifkin is keen to provide it. The history of human-bovine relations has gone from sacrament to slaughter as succeeding human epochs changed their use of the beast.

"The elimination of beef from the human diet", he writes, "signals an anthropological turning point in the history of human consciousness. By moving beyond the beef culture we forge a new covenant for humanity, one based on protecting the health of the biosphere, providing sustenance for our fellow human beings, and caring for the welfare of other creatures with whom we share the earth."

I hope the cows realise how responsible they are for so many of our woes because, without a moo of protest, they are being blamed for our most grievous problems. The dawning of the new age of human consciousness will be one devoid of bullshit, you'll be pleased to know, because so many of the cattle will have gone.

Thereafter, writes Rifkin, "a new species awareness will begin when the rich meet the poor on the descending rungs of the world's protein ladder". Moving beyond beef is a revolutionary act of postmodern sensibility accompanied by an ecological renaissance, a great restoration of nature on every continent.

Our personal and collective choice to go beyond beef has such power in Rifkin's eyes that it strikes at the heart of modern economics by transcending the imperatives of the market.

Personally, I'd prefer to do away with the market all together. If there is a "cattle complex" and a market imperative for beef, there is also one for anything else you care to mention. What about the oil, cotton, uranium, timber, wheat, wool, sugar or military complexes? Do we go beyond them too?

The questions Rifkin seems to ask of a hamburger — who made you? where do you come from? and how much did you cost socially and ecologically to produce? — can be asked of any commodity in our society, and the answers will be similar in all cases. If cattle have been reduced to a resource, then so too has all of nature because cattle, forests and range lands are all exploited for private gain. And what animates the resources of nature is the exploited labour of other human beings.

Rifkin's fascinating review of how the North American West was won — a process reproduced by squatters and small settlers here in Australia — is a lesson in the absolute logic of a commodity-producing society. We can call it evil and condemn it for sustaining humans in a sea of corpses, but such moralism offers no guarantee of ever resolving our compunctions. Boycotting beef in itself carries no warranty of health and happiness for inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, for instance. There must be more to it than Rifkin's bovine maths.

The politics of this act of mass denial escape his excellent scholarship. We learn that "pressure" will have to put on ruling elites to redistribute land to peasant populations. Land suddenly devoid of cattle will be "liberated" to grow grain for human beings and millions will migrate from the cities to take up small-scale subsistence farming. Like some pandemic Hinduism, we transcend problems of gender and class by reproducing the intimate relationship of the sacramental past.

If only it were so simple. Nonetheless, for activists who view the world through food, Rifkin's prosecution of the role of beef consumption in our society leaves you with a nasty aftertaste. By his figures, environmentally we cannot afford beef-centred diets anywhere on this planet. Millions of ruminating, methane-making, hoofed bovines simply have to go.