Gregory Stephen's Weblog
Sunday, January 11, 2004
By Gregory Stephens

“The river of milk in America brings with it a river of ground beef," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg in the wake of the Mad Cow Disease scare. That quote has got me thinking. That the river of milk and beef and the people who consume them almost all run on concrete is troubling, if you really stop to think about it.

Mr. Klinkeneberg, author of The Rural Life, notes that the image many of us have of milk cows grazing in deep pasture is far removed from the way most milk is produced. In fact, only poultry and pig farms are a more concentrated form of agriculture in America than dairy farms. Many milk cows spend their lives indoors, on cement. Bred with super-udders the size of large men, their feet and legs often break down after a few years of trodding on concrete. Their peak productivity, during which their life centers around milking machines, only lasts three or four years. When their production begins to decline, they are culled for slaughter.

Now, I have been a vegetarian since 1978, but only in the last year have I finally sworn off milk. My children still drink milk, though, as I cannot easily find soy milk here in Oklahoma City. But I can no longer pick up a gallon of milk without being aware of my complicity in the slaughter of the creatures that provide my children with this cheap protein. Large-scale animal agriculture, it is becoming ever more clear to me, is not good for human beings, much less for the animals that North Americans slaughter at the rate of 10 billion a year.

I am suspicious of extremists who say that milk is inherently bad for humans. (The high rate of lactose intolerance among Native Americans and African Americans does give me pause, however). There are many cultures around the world that thrive in relation to their dairy cattle. Are we to tell them their way of life is wrong?

As a Southwesterner raised in the country, I don’t oppose drinking milk or eating eggs from cows or chickens that actually walk on the earth, rather than living their lives in concrete barns, or in cages smaller than a piece of typing paper. In principle, I can’t criticize hunting creatures that live in the wild, as opposed to, say, shooting birds released out of a net, as Vice President Cheney did recently. If my life depended on it, you can bet that I would hunt.

But there is a problem of scale. Those rivers of milk and beef are almost impossible to adequately inspect, as many credible observers have been warning us for years. The U.S. only tests about 1 out of every 18,000 cows slaughtered, a system that has been described as “Don’t look, don’t find.” By contrast, Switzerland tests one out of every 60 cows. Ireland tests twice as many cows in one night as the U.S. tests in a whole year.

There is a problem with sustainability. Milk and beef are typically shipped thousands of miles to consumers. From cows to consumers, one long river flowing on concrete spreading ever wider. The methane gas produced by cattle is the second largest contributor to the greenhouse effect. The carbon dioxide produced by transporting them to market is immense, but hard to measure. Together, oil addiction and over-consumption of meat are the main reasons why, if we do not quickly change our way of life, over the next 50 years many large coastal cities will be flooded, and more than a million species will be wiped out.

Then there is the waste. North American livestock raised for food produce an astounding 87,000 pounds of excrement per second, polluting our waters more than all other types of industrial pollution combined. And there is, long-term, a problem of feeding grains to livestock instead of people, an extremely inefficient system that filters about 15 calories into animals for every calorie that comes back to humans. Yet the fad of the moment, the meat-centered Atkins diet, is a model that, like our car-centered lifestyle, the entire world cannot possibly follow.

But above all, I feel there is a problem with the hypocritical way in which we consume these products. “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarians,” as Paul McCartney says. You can be sure that we would eat a lot less chicken if every child learned in school how those chicks that turned into Chicken McNuggets actually lived. I still remember my grandmother wringing the neck of chickens we ate for dinner. I’m not suggesting we can return to that approach. But having some minimal relationship with the animals we eat, and the people involved, is the only way to make that system healthy and accountable, after all.

Beyond our self-interest, there is a larger moral question. To the surprise of some, this is being advanced by Christian vegetarian and animal rights advocates. Slavery was a system in which one group advanced its self-interests at the expense of a group lacking in power. Many religious leaders and ethicists are now suggesting that we need to begin thinking about our relationship with animals in similar ways. Former Bush speech writer Matthew Scully argues that animals are “a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship.”

Who will tell us the truth about the true dangers, and the immorality, of the regimes of oil, and industrial beef? It certainly be won’t anyone in the Bush Administration, which is over-populated with oilmen and cattlewomen. Alisa Harrison, spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who has been reassuring the world that American beef is safe, was previously director of public relations for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. In that capacity she criticized Oprah Winfrey for raising health questions about American hamburgers.

In the interest of business as usual, we will be encouraged to continue driving through fast food chains to pick up our hamburgers. We will ignore all the research that makes clear that link between beef consumption and a variety of national health epidemics, including cancer. When we travel, or invade other countries, we will carry with us preconceptions that this is the natural order of things. When we think about reconstructing a nation like Iraq, we will dream of building shopping malls and fast food restaurants, from Basra to Baghdad.

So I look for truth on the margins. “It is perhaps instructive to think of America's working people being herded like so many cattle between school and work," suggests Seth Sandronsky. Our minds might collectively reel from being compared to the animals we slaughter. But humans as well as cows mostly live on concrete now, hooked to a machine that milks us to death. When we are no longer sufficiently profitable, we are culled from the system. And like a lamb being led to the slaughter, the passive majority dares not open its mouth.


Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Holstein Dairy Cows and the Inefficient Efficiencies of Modern Farming,” New York Times 1-5-2004.

Anti-milk extremists, Robert Cohen, Milk: The Deadly Poison (Argus, 1998).

Cheney’s pheasant slaughter and canned hunts: “Cheney the Bird Hunter,” International Herald Tribune 12-15-03;; Wayne Pacelle, “Stacking the Hunt,” New York Times, 12-9-03.

Jeffrey A. Nelson, “USDA Mad Cow Strategy: Don’t Look, Don’t Find,” 4-2-01;

Methane gas, excrement, Robyn Landis, “Mad Cows in a World Gone Mad,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1-9-04.

Geoffrey Lean, “Global Warming: Melting Ice ‘Will Swamp Capitals’,” Independent 1-7-04. Species: Sir David King, Tony Blair’s chief scientist, writing in Science, quoted in Steve Connor, “US Climate Policy Bigger Threat to World than Terrorism,” Independent 1-9-04.

Atkins diet, Marty Bender and Stan Cox, “Warning: This Diet is Not for Everyone,” 12-11-03;

Christian vegetarian and animal rights groups:;;

At the expense of powerless groups, Ronald Sklar, “Animals Always Pay,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 5-23-03; Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (Mirror Books/IDEA, 1997); Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002).

Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martin’s, 2002). “Test of character,” quoted in Jim Motavalli, “Rights from Wrongs: A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals is Gathering Force,” Emagazine March/April 2003;

For an overview of “animal interests,” in the secular context of moral philosophy, see Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation at 30,” New York Review of Books 50:8 (5-15-03). Singer, like many writers on this subject both religious and secular, centers on the concept of speciesism, which like racism or sexism, is seen as an artificial boundary that prevents an inclusive (just and sustainable) sense of kin or community. See Joan Dunayer, “English and Speciesism,” English Today 19:1 (2003).

True dangers, John Stauber, “Mad Cow USA: The Nightmare Begins,” 12-30-2003; Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (Common Courage Press, 1997).

Re: Alisa Harrison, Eric Schlosser, “The Cow Jumped Over the U.S.D.A.,” New York Times, 1-2-04. See Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Re: the stranglehold cattlemen have had on American politricks, see James Ridgeway, “Slaughterhouse Politics: Ranchers Fought Rules That Might Have Prevented Mad Cow,” Village Voice (12-30-03).

“Fast Food from Basra to Baghdad”: part of the chapter “Driving Up the Cost of Freedom” from my book-in-progress Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. The quote is adapted from Sergeant Michael Sprague in James Meek, “Marines Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds,” Guardian 3-25-03;,3604,921356,00.html.

Seth Sandronsky, “Mad Cow and Main Street USA,” 1-5-04,

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