Being a vegetarian is something I don’t talk about much. The decision was mine and I made it when I was 11, to the chagrin of my mother. Back then, mealtimes became so cantankerous, she hauled me off to the doctor for a lecture on nutrition. Her strategy backfired. She’s the one who got a lecture on why people shouldn’t eat meat.
I’ve never regretted my decision to become a vegetarian, but I don’t proselytize. What people choose to eat is their business. Or is it? Of late, I’ve become aware of the dangers of meat eating not only for the human body but also for the planet. Christopher Ketcham in his article, “Big Cattle, Big Gulp,” has assembled information that may not give readers a craving for raw carrots, but it should make them pause. (The New Republic, February 2015, pgs. 6-7)
Nostalgia for the wild west and the iconic American cowboy aside, there isn’t much romance in cattle raising. Ranching is one of the most polluting activities on the planet. According to Ketcham, “a single cattle feedlot in Idaho, located a mile from the Snake River, produces more untreated solid and liquid waste every day than four cities the size of Denver” (Ibid pg. 7) What’s more, “…over 95% of all western public land is being ‘dewatered’ (when streams go bone dry) by diverting the natural river flow to accommodate cattle ranching.” Ancillary activities to support the industry are also a problem. According to Ketcham, growing hay for feed requires heavy irrigation systems that are helping to drain the natural habitat. (Ibid pg. 7)
In addition, dams and other water diversions do enormous harm to the environment. Hunting, trapping and slaughtering “hundreds of thousands of animals each year to aid stockmen: coyotes, wolves, beavers, prairie dogs, mountain lions, black bears and other ‘pests,’” results in a depilated ecology. (Ibid pg. 7) In addition, last session, “Congress gave the cattle industry another boon, exempting it from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy.” (Ibid pg. 7).
Given the government’s deference to cattle raising, is there any payback to the taxpayer? According to economist University of Montana economist, Thomas Power, cattle ranching provide “$1 out of every $2,500 income and one out of every 2,000 jobs.” (Ibid pg. 7) Consider, too, that the industry receives approximately $500 million per year from state and federal subsidies.” (Ibid pg. 7.)
Steak lovers who also love the planet are facing a dilemma. As a nation, we may adore our cowboys, our colorful history, Stetson hats and leather boots included; but nostalgia isn’t a reason to support a way of life that pollutes the environment and is drinking the west dry. What’ll you have hombres? Steak or clean, abundant water?