How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Cost of Hamburger

Sacred Cows and Cheap Hamburgers

“The cow is the purest of sub-human life. She pleads before us on behalf of the whole of the sub-human species for justice to it at the hands of man, the first among all that lives. She seems to speak to us through her eyes: ‘you are not appointed over us to kill us and eat our flesh or otherwise ill-treat us, but to be our friend and guardian’ (Mahatma Gandhi).”

“Guias” is the Hindi name of the sacred cow. She was born in a primordial sea and like her Grecian counterpart, Gaia, she represents the Earth mother giving sustenance and providing for all the needs of her human progeny.

The cow is a sacred divine creature in many early cultures and continues to be revered today in modern Hinduism. The cow is the animal embodiment of the Earth’s nurturing essence. She turns useless grass and weeds into life-giving milk protein. Her waste nourishes crops, provides cooking fuel and is believed to hold antiseptic properties. Her urine is praised as a medical panacea. Even in death, the cow provides a wealth of resources. If the cow is allowed to fulfill her sacred function, the natural cycles between animal, human and environment remain perpetually in balance. The sacred cow and subsistence farmer have a mutually beneficial and sustainable relationship.

In the United States, cows are treated as anything but sacred. The American lust for cheap, abundant fast food hamburgers has driven an industry that prides itself on efficiency and thrift rather than reverence. The vast majority of cattle in the United States spend miserable lives at confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are handled to achieve maximum growth at a maximum rate for maximum profit. They are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, forced to eat a diet that is completely alien to their digestive design and wallow in their own excrement until the fateful day they are slaughtered. In the wake of industrial meat is a trail of animal suffering, pathogenically dubious meat, mountains and lagoons of raw manure, which rather than being nutritive to the earth become highly polluting to air and water.

As one reflects on the puffy, pasty, hollow faces lined up at the neighborhood drive thru, it would seem we are paying a high price for our cheap hamburgers. We have no connection to the origin of our meat and don’t want one. We prefer our food to be sanitized and wrapped in brightly colored paper and Styrofoam containers. As the CAFO process often results in a tasteless product, whole industries have developed to manufacture chemical additives to give our cheap burgers some much needed flavor.

In defense of the CAFO model, proponents argue that the practice greatly reduces the cost of meat production, with savings passed on to the customer. But these claims are deceptive. While it is true a Big Mac at McDonald’s costs about a meager $3.50 in the United States, in reality the cost is much higher. The U.S. taxpayer, subsidizes low cost grain to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Farmers sell their grain at prices often below the cost of production and taxpayers make up the difference. Readily available cheap grain was the advent that led to the conception of CAFOs in the first place.

So while the entrepreneur behind the CAFO enjoys a reduced cost of production and McDonalds can sell cheap hamburgers, we pay the difference not just at the drive thru but on our tax bills. Pastures do not receive any subsidy, so beef farmers that humanely and nutritiously raise their cattle cannot compete with CAFO prices. As grain prices soar, subsidies are reduced and the cost of CAFO operation goes up, but in spite of increased grain prices, the CAFOs have other means of reducing their overheads courtesy of the U.S. Taxpayer.

The confining of thousands of animals in a space suited for an order of magnitude less animals per unit area produces stockpiled mountains and lagoons full of manure, which have devastating consequences for water and air quality. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers a maximum of $450,000 to CAFOs to help manage the pollution. Since small farmers, raising cattle naturally do not cause pollution, this subsidy is also often unavailable to them. It is estimated that $125 million has been given to CAFOs via EQIP since 2007 (1).

Most of the environmental costs attributable to CAFO manure problems are indirect and are therefore never accounted for. Reports of manure lagoon failures and overflows in heavy rains, running into rivers and tributaries causing widespread fish kills are frequent and devastating. In some instances, liquefied manure is actually sprayed on fields where it seeps into groundwater and washes into watersheds with every rain. The Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay contain vast dead zones where vital fisheries have been killed off by runoff from CAFOs (2).

Then there is air pollution. Thousands of animals in a confined space pooping and peeing results in the production of an extraordinary amount of ammonia gas. Ammonia is an air pollutant considered a respiratory irritant and can combine with other pollutants to cause respiratory disease. Animal feedlots are considered to be the leading cause of ammonia pollution in the United States. The methane produced by feedlots is also one of the leading contributors to global climate change. The offensive odor that accompanies CAFO’s for miles into surrounding areas has also been blamed for reduced property values for neighboring residents.

Overall, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates total indirect and direct costs to consumers resulting from CAFOs at approximately $6.52 billion per year with additional costs of $30.1 billion resulting from manure spills and reduced property values (3).

And CAFO’s are not the only culprits in the name of cheap hamburger. Clearing forests to create pastureland for grazing cattle has been the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest since 1970 (4), while 80% of the growth in the beef industry in the Amazon has been for the export market. Brazil has been the world’s largest exporter of beef since 2003 (5). As cattle farms and soy cropland (which is exported as cattle feed) displace the rainforest, they also displace the indigenous people who have inhabited the same land for thousands of years. Corrupt governments sell rainforest land to multinational corporations, and the indigenous people intricately tied to the same land now have no other means of livelihood. Destitute and stripped of their way of life, native Amazonians are committing suicide at alarming rates. Those who don’t take their own lives often get shot by farmers for trespassing as they struggle to keep their land and their culture. In India, the Centre for Science and the Environment estimates that the total cost of a hamburger grown on clear cut rainforest is actually $200 (6) when all of the indirect costs are accounted for.

Just as we have lost our connection to the reality of our food and turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed so we can enjoy fast food, our treatment of cows reflects our wider treatment of the earth and all of her sacred organisms. We are a nation of over-consumption and blind neglect leading empty lives that are as devoid of deeper meaning as our hamburgers are of flavor and nutrition. Like the chemical additives we add to food for flavor, we fill our lives with empty consumer goods that can never offer the same satisfaction as the real stuff of life. Try as we might, we cannot ignore forever the impact of our violence and neglect to Earth and her sacred creatures. Our bodies and Earth bear the scars of our irreverence.

1- Gurian-Sherman, Doug, 2008. CAFO’s Uncovered – The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Union of Concerned Scientists Publications, Cambridge, MA.
2- Ibid.
3- Ibid.
4- Mongabay, 2009. Deforestation in the Amazon at
5- Green Peace. Amazon Cattle Footprint. From the world wide web at
6- Dunne, Nancy. Why a Hamburger Should Cost $200. Financial Times, January 12, 1994.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for addressing my favorite soapbox issue so eloquently.