Yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, Governor Rick Perry of Texas complained that due to higher prices for corn, ethanol was destroying the livestock industry in Texas. Governor Perry’s complaints about ethanol driving up the price of corn and thus the price of livestock feed are indeed true, but is the livestock industry the innocent victim that Perry is portraying?
The single most subsidized crop in the United States is corn. From 1995-2006, corn subsidies in United States totaled a staggering $56.2 billion. Almost every bushel of corn produced in the United States is subsidized, and those subsidies have driven the growth of feedlot beef and other feedlot livestock. The livestock industry has no more right to these subsidies than do ethanol producers.
For all but the rich, eating meat at most meals did not become common until the 1950s. Before then, meat was simply too expensive to be an everyday item on the household menu. Although rising incomes played a role in the expanded role for meat in the American diet, the main factor was cheap corn and the introduction of feedlot livestock.
With its cakey loam topsoil still nearly two feet deep, Iowa has some of the richest farm land in the world. However, in the past century, nearly half of that original topsoil has been washed away. Our rich agricultural heritage is being squandered to grow corn whose chief uses are animal feed and ethanol.
Government subsidies for corn encourage its expanded production via hybrid seeds and monoagriculture. The latter means farms grow a single crop year after year without regard to the diversity needed to maintain the topsoil. The declining fertility of the soil is simply replaced with synthetic nitrogen. The same synthetic nitrogen that goes into the fertilizer that grows the corn poisons the water table with excess nitrates. As the runoff from Iowa farms flows down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico, the marine ecosystem is harmed.
The cow, a ruminant animal, has evolved over the years to thrive on grasses. Indeed cows can thrive on even low quality forage from semi-arid lands such as the Dakotas. Of course the “problem” is that a grass fed cow takes much longer to reach maturity for slaughter. That problem is “solved” by feeding cattle cheap starches, such as corn; but cattle are unsuited to eat corn. Michael Pollan writes:
Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.
The solution for feedlot owners is, as Pollan explains, feeding cattle the antibiotics Rumensin and Tylosin. Corn fed beef, or feedlot beef, could also be called pharmaceutical beef because almost all feedlot cattle are fed antibiotics which end up in the human food chain. Despite that, up to 70% of the slaughtered feedlot cows have abscessed livers.
Pollan writes that: “A feedlot is very much like a premodern city… teeming filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads, and choking air rendered visible by dust.” As a result of the filth and the corn diet, acid-resistant E. coli, which are toxic to humans, thrive in feedlots. As importantly, the unnatural diet of corn results in unnatural beef that is marbled with fat; health consequences result for human beings who eat the fatty beef. But no matter, as we weaken our bodies, we simply demand more subsidized health care.
To Governor Perry and the livestock industry he shills for, as well as to the ethanol industry, I say this—a plague on both your houses. Without subsidies, ethanol and the feedlot beef industry would shrink. Your greed is part of what is destroying America’s finances, its morality, its environment, and its health.
Note: Much of the information about corn and livestock is based on Michael Pollan’s outstanding book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I highly recommend his book. A warning though—his book may give you more knowledge than you care to have. As Pollan writes, “Eating industrial beef takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”