A burger-week beef about beef
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/09/2022 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Canada’s national Le Burger Week runs for two weeks this year, ending Sept. 14, and organizers of the competition are encouraging restaurants to create plant-based burgers instead of meat-based burgers. That the burger business is confronting the environmental, economic and social costs of beef consumption, whether intentionally or not, is laudable.
In the university textbook Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (2019), Richard Robbins and Rachel Dowty offer some healthy food for thought on the issue.
Environmental damage caused by the beef industry begins with the vast amount of land needed to raise cattle. The deforestation of many Latin American countries to create pastures for cattle is matched by the desertification of much rangeland in Africa and North America, causing the disappearance of wildlife and plant species.
Eighty per cent of grain produced in America is fed to livestock — grain whose production calls for megatons of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. By the time a feedlot steer is ready for slaughter, it has consumed more than 1,200 kilograms of grain. In broader terms, it takes 157 million metric tons of cereal and vegetable protein to produce 28 metric tons of animal protein.
Half the water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow grain to feed cattle, and 15 times more water is required to produce beef protein than plant protein. In return, a feedlot steer produces 21 kilograms of manure per day, not to mention the methane gas it emits.
The subsequent slaughter, refrigeration, transport and cooking of beef devours energy voraciously. Overall, it takes about 3.5 litres of oil to produce each pound of beef.
And of course, beef in the quantities we consume it is also personally unhealthy, being linked to cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and osteoporosis, all of which have resultant health-care costs.
Understanding why we consume beef as much as we do requires knowledge of the historical relationships between Spanish colonization of the New World, British social classes and military life, and American governance of the Great Plains, buffalo and Indigenous peoples.
The advent of the automobile in the 20th century led to urban expansion and the growth of suburbs and, eventually, the rise of the fast-food restaurants that made the beef burger king, as they melded with the new work roles and routines of American and Canadian families.
The production and processing of sugar, tea and cocoa are likewise closely tied to the emergence and growth of the capitalist world economy, and none are healthy, at least not in the quantities and forms in which we consume them. According to Robbins and Dowty, “Fat and sucrose have become the foundations of (our) diet, accounting for more than one-half of the caloric intake of North Americans. Indeed, they are the foundation foods of the culture of capitalism symbolized in the hamburger and Coke, and the fat-and-sucrose dessert — ice cream.”
As the authors summarize, “our ‘taste’ for beef goes well beyond our supposed individual food preferences. It is a consequence of a culture in which food as a commodity takes a form defined by economic, political and social relationships.”
Hence, food tastes in general are cultural, not natural, a product of nurture, not nature. They are another example of the social construction and naturalization of taken-for-granted ways of life, and as such are amenable to re-construction.
The question is whether we will have the collective will to adapt them in order to survive jointly, or whether we’d rather indulge ourselves to death together.
America produces nine per cent of the world’s beef but consumes 28 per cent of it. As hyper-consumption of beef globalizes to countries such as China and Japan, which in the past consumed only one-tenth the amount of meat we eat, its environmental consequences will only worsen.
Unfortunately, the arresting 2014 documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret overstated the effect of animal agriculture on environmental destruction. Contrary to the film’s claim, animal agriculture is not the leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fossil fuels remain the leading cause of anthropogenic global warming, accounting for about two-thirds of emissions. Nevertheless, according to a 2018 peer-reviewed meta-analysis, livestock account for 28 per cent of emissions, making it the second leading cause.
The vehicle I drive guzzles gas, and I gobble good (tasting) hamburgers. I, too, am an enculturated part of the global problem. In a year of unprecedented global droughts induced by climate change accelerated by the beef industry, it’s good to see some capitalist food consumption campaigns such as Le Burger Week taking more positive responsibility for being part of the solution than most of us are.
Dennis Hiebert is a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba.