This Unholy Mess


Our Sacred Cow

Before making an unpopular prediction, I need to get the fine print disclosures out of the way. I eat meat. Red meat. Probably more than is good for me. In fact, to certain professionals behind the meat and fish counter at a local grocery, I am known as ‘Mr. Ribeye.” There now. That feels better.
My prediction is: eventually, we will all be vegetarians, or close to it. It will likely take a few generations to complete the transformation, but perhaps not; the reasons will involve our general health, ethical considerations, environmental necessity, or a combination of these, but come to pass it will. This is my favorite kind of prediction, by the way: one which is so long- term that most likely everyone reading it will be gone before its validity can be evaluated. Perfect! Did Nostradamus start this way?
The prediction is an almost absurd notion for anyone living in Napa today. You can walk down certain stretches of Soscol or Trancas and bump into a Hamburger Opportunity about every hundred feet. One of the most iconic figures of American life today is that of the backyard chef standing at the barbeque. And she’s not grilling tofu, my friends.
The forces arrayed against the change are of epic proportions. Huge fast food corporations naturally oppose it, as well as gigantic agri-business concerns that either raise cattle or grow the soy beans and other crops needed to feed them (in the process destroying the Amazon rain forests at a rate of one acre per second). Our government, in a typical show of the kind of courage that only money can inspire, naturally lines up with these groups to create an invincible battlefront.
So why will it happen? Because even if you can’t manage to see cattle as rather large pets that don’t bark or meow, or even if you’re happy taking a handful of pills to tame your wild cholesterol instead of adopting healthy eating habits, you still have to reckon with some uncomfortable facts about beef.
First, there is the water issue. It takes about 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, which is to say: that quarter-pounder, nestled in its colorful but bio-degradable clamshell box, needs over 600 gallons of water to see the light of day. Even if you’re not too careful with water, that’s about a month’s worth of showers. So as you slowly murder your house plants and landscaping, keep the actual proportion of things in mind. Household use of water in the U.S. is about 5% of the total, while animal agriculture is 55%. Even the certified Darth Vader industry of oil and gas fracking uses “only” 100 billion gallons of water a year; just a splash when compared to the 34 TRILLION gallons used for animal ag every year in the U.S.
Second, there is the pollution issue, part A of which is the Flatulence Factor. The United Nations reports that cows now produce more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector—which includes all cars, trains, boats, and planes combined. This is largely because the effects of the methane produced by the animals is anywhere from 25 to 100 times more destructive in the atmosphere than the CO2 produced by the transportation sector. It’s one of the rare scenarios in which cow flatulence is not much of a laughing matter. Part B, the Poop Factor, is just as grim. It turns out that there is no situation in which animal ag on the scale now practiced can be sustainable—there is just too much animal exhaust being produced, and too few places where its presence will not pollute otherwise valuable land and watershed. How about this for a steaming pile of statistics? The volume of animal waste produced every year is 130 times that of the earth’s entire human population. Every SECOND in the U.S., 116,000 pounds of animal waste are produced; enough in a single year to spread a moist, aromatic carpet over the surfaces of about 20 of the largest cities in the world, including Beijing, New York, Tokyo, New Delhi, Berlin, and Paris. (I admit, this fictional scene would be a huge blow to tourism, and to urban street food vendors. But what a boon to producers of sturdy rubber boots!)
So in spite of all the efforts of fast food chains and large animal ag concerns to keep us supersizing our burgers, I’m sticking with my prediction. It certainly doesn’t mean that we will soon be seeing a Jack-in-the-Box Spicy Plankton and Tofu Ciabatta, but the limitations of our world are clearly going to be colliding with our appetites in the not-too-distant future—and there’s the beef.

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