Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ranchers Deplore Drought; Have Hand in Its Making

“So sad,” said CNN anchor Anderson Cooper after hearing a reporter discuss the economic impact the U.S. drought is having on ranchers who must sell their cattle to slaughter earlier than anticipated. Sad for whom, the cattlemen or cattle? Last I checked, despite their financial woes, cattlemen and ranchers weren’t being sent to slaughterhouses to be torturously disemboweled and mercilessly killed for food. (I don’t think Soylent Green has become a food staple . . . yet!)

The irony is that it is the cattle ranchers themselves who are an integral factor in their own ruin and undoing, not to mention the destruction of millions of lives at the cost of doing “business.” Ranchers have helped generate this drought and continue to play a significant role in climate change and the prevalence of droughts through increasingly warmer temperatures.

“Livestock” (literally speaking, living animals treated as stock) like cattle produce three times as much waste as people and are the country’s fastest-growing source of methane, a greenhouse gas 72 times more destructive than carbon dioxide. Methane is produced in the gastrointestinal tracts of cattle and is passed into the atmosphere by belching and flatulence. While some may think that a few burping and farting cows is not such a big deal, consider the fact that at least 306 million cows are slaughtered annually throughout the world. The tons of methane they collectively emit intensifies the greenhouse effect by trapping the sun’s heat and creating a warmer climate over time, which seems to be happening more rapidly with each passing year. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the last twelve months have been the warmest the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1880. Furthermore, the first eleven years of the 21st century now rank among the thirteen warmest in the 132-year period of record. As developing countries adapt an American meat-centric diet, more carbon sequestering forests are demolished to make room for cattle.

In addition to the methane cattle produce, the entire process of raising cows and other animals for human consumption contributes to substantial greenhouse gas emissions from the destruction of forests, to the use of fossil fuels in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides, to the pumping of water and powering of farm machines, the housing and transportation of animals, the running of slaughterhouses, and the refrigeration and transport of meat. Some 63 billion (that’s Billion with a “B”) land animals are exterminated every year for human consumption (not including sea animals). According to a World Watch article, animal agriculture accounts for 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. 

It's not enough that every year the government provides taxpayer money in the form of subsidies to sustain the meat and dairy industries, but now ranchers are looking for an additional handout for help with the drought. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. government gave $227 million in subsidies to livestock producers in 2010. In that same year, dairy subsidies accounted for $74 million. If Americans were charged the true price for unsubsidized meat and dairyincluding environmental, health, and energy costsmany would be pressed to avoid meat and dairy all together. And just because the government finances something doesn’t mean it’s good for people. The government also gave $200 million in 2010 to tobacco manufacturers!

So you see, I have little sympathy for cattle ranchers who are mostly to blame for the drought that is gripping the country, as well as those who continue to support the meat and dairy industries through their unrelenting consumption of animal flesh and animal products.

If there’s a silver lining to this drought that has encapsulated some 61 percent of the country, it’s the possibility (and hope) that the drought is putting many livestock ranchers out of business for good. Arid conditions are also affecting soy and corn crops which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), account for 80 percent of agricultural land in the U.S. used just to feed "food" animals. In turn, a decrease in supply will mean higher prices for meat and dairy which is likely to decrease demand and, perhaps, even shrink greenhouse gas emissions.

What is more, the drought can potentially save thousands of animals from being born into the never-ending cycle of hopeless slavery and suffering at the hands of careless humans. 

Pie chart courtesy of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

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