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A Courageous Critique of America’s Cattle Industry

By Philip Warburg


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Review of Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment by Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes (Norton, 2015)
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Want to know what 93 million factory-fed cows have brought to American diets, the American environment, and the global climate? In their new book Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment, Earth Day 1970 coordinator Denis Hayes and environmental lawyer Gail Boyer Hayes provide some sobering answers. The authors combine lively narrative and finely honed scientific curiosity in recounting their travels to cattle-raising operations and dairy farms across the country.

CowedNitrogen-based fertilizer is one of the cornerstones of the cattle industry as we know it today. When World War II wound down, enterprising industrialists looked for new ways to use the ammonium nitrate that had fed the wartime armaments industry. Fertilizer emerged as the preferred peacetime alternative. This led to cheaper, more abundant grain crops, made even more profitable by generous government farm subsidies. Very quickly, cattle ranchers seized the moment, moving their herds off of pastures and into factory feedlots where corn became their primary fodder.

Crowded and confined, cattle in these concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, fatten up quickly but need hefty doses of antibiotics and other medications to fight off disease. The animals also produce such prodigious amounts of manure that conventional land application methods can’t keep pace. Wastes are pumped into fetid lagoons loaded with nutrients, antibiotic residues, and pesticides—all poorly regulated by state and federal agencies deferential to cattle industry pressures. Runoff into waterways from these open ponds has become one of rural America’s most nettlesome pollution menaces.

Creatures large and small are part of this well told story. From the ancient Aurochs, formidable forebear to the domesticated cow, to the tiny dung beetle, with its iconic roots as the scarab of ancient Egypt, Denis and Gail Boyer Hayes deftly describe cattle-raising as it has evolved over millennia. They delve into the intricacies of bovine digestion and manure decomposition with humor and precision, and they present the distressing conditions of modern-day cattle raising with unsparing clarity.

The authors’ ultimate message may be controversial, but it is not one of despair. Along with describing the horrors of CAFOs, they offer encouraging examples of economically viable alternatives much less damaging to cattle and those of us who eat them. If we were to cut our beef consumption by half and shift cattle back to pasture, they maintain that Americans would enjoy a healthier brand of beef, less fatty and largely free of the chemicals now running through factory-fed meat.

Will the mainstream cattle industry welcome this book? Not likely. But the authors do present a compelling compromise between swearing off beef and continuing an unhealthy, polluting status quo.

About the Author

Warburg photoPhilip Warburg is the author of an upcoming book on solar energy, Harness the Sun (Beacon, 2015), and has written a previous book about wind energy, Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability (Beacon, 2012). An environmental lawyer, he is the former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Connect with him on his website and Twitter.