Eating a Burger or Driving a Car: Which Harms Planet More?

Up to 93 million cows and counting—find out how our reliance on industrial feedlots is affecting the environment.

They provide us with beef and milk, the gel coating for pills, soap, ice cream, baseballs, and printing ink. But our dependence on cattle, especially the beef we consume in larger quantities per person than any other country except Argentina and Luxembourg, comes at a cost: industrial feedlots where cattle stand knee-deep in their own feces, pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones for them; clogged arteries, obesity, and heart attacks for us.

From their home in Seattle, husband-and-wife team Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes, authors of Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America's Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment, explain why Julius Caesar feared aurochs; how "ag gag" laws are being used in America to suppress criticism of the meat industry; why a cow called Yvonne became a folk heroine in Germany; and how a ranch in Hawaii offers a sustainable alternative to industrial beef-farming.

The book was inspired by a journey to the British Isles and Ireland. What did you find there that intrigued you?

What we found was the aftermath of mad cow disease. We stayed at some country inns where there had been cattle farms and tragedy. In one case, the man of the house had committed suicide as everything fell apart around him. Ironically, his wife served us brisket. [Laughs] The positive part was driving around the countryside and seeing small herds of wildly diverse cows. In the United States you can drive for miles and never see a cow. They are in largest part now confined to huge, concentration camp–style feedlots. The cattle are also pretty uniform.

There was so much diversity in the cows in the British Isles that Gale started compiling the cow equivalent of a birder’s list. Every time she saw a cow, she would draw a picture of it. Then we would try and figure out what kind it was.

Obvious question: Where do cows come from?

The progenitor of the cow is this marvelous beast called an aurochs, which you can see in cave paintings. They faintly resemble cows, and buffalo. They were fierce, smart, and fast, and they instilled terror in people who confronted them in the wild. Julius Caesar famously worried about his troops encountering aurochs. They brought aurochs in to fight gladiators in the Colosseum. Somewhere along the line, someone started milking one, and slowly, over time, that once wild creature was bred into 800 different breeds of cow. The aurochs itself is no longer in the world. The last one was killed about 300 years ago in Poland. But it left behind a huge population of what we now call cattle.

How did cows get to America? Did the Pilgrims bring them on the Mayflower?

Not on the Mayflower. They came a few years later—from two directions. There were these dainty, elegant English cows, which were cared for deeply on small pastures and brought inside during the winter. At the same time, the Spaniards were bringing Iberian longhorns in through Mexico and Latin America, and then up the West Coast. The two different herds met in Texas and produced the famous Texas longhorns, the cattle in the famous cattle drives.

You write that eating a pound of beef has more impact on climate change than burning a gallon of gasoline. Explain.

That pound of beef grown on a confined animal feeding lot and fed grain is grown in huge tracts in the Midwest. If you throw in the amount of energy that is used in making the nitrogen fertilizer deposited on the cornfields; all the gasoline that goes into the tractors that plow the fields and harvesters that harvest the grain; the gas used to transport the corn to the feeding lots where the cows are slaughtered and refrigerated and moved off into the market; the gas people use in their two-ton SUVs to go down to the grocery store and buy the beef, bring it home and refrigerate it some more, and then cook it—by the time you’ve gone through all of that, the amount of carbon dioxide that is given off per pound of beef is, in fact, greater [than burning a gallon of gasoline].

The life of a cow in a feedlot is not a pretty picture, is it?

Not at all. I don’t want to over-romanticize the life of the cow when it was in a Stone Age settlement or a European farm, but there was a human-cow connection. You may not have thought of your cow as a person today thinks of their dog or horse, but you thought of it as a creature that was part of your life and provided benefits to you. People who had 20 or 30 cows knew their names and took care of them. Today that’s not true. Investment bankers have replaced farmers. A small number of employees now treat a huge number of cattle. They tend to be paid very poorly and have no stake in the welfare of their animals.

Why is a happy cow a cash cow? Do cows have emotions?

Very much. We tend to place a lot of value on intelligence. So we are more aroused about chimpanzees or dogs than cows. But they also suffer pain. We pull the calves away from the mothers and milk the mothers for as long as possible, then inseminate them again so that they start producing more milk. It’s an industrial process. Rather than being thought of as sentient beings that have emotions, cows are just widgets in a vast assembly line.

The slaughtering process we currently engage in produces beef that is suboptimal. When cows are hurt, like any other creature in pain, their bodies flood with chemicals that are not particularly good for their taste. Happy cows are more productive. If they are nurtured, and even played music that is soothing, fed good diets that they evolved to eat, like grasses and forbs [wildflowers] in pastures, rather than stuffing them with grains they cannot digest, they will produce better meat and more milk.

But if you are an investment banker or a meat-packer or one of the other consolidating forces in the industry, what you want is for the cow to put on as much weight as possible, as fast as possible. So the beef industry routinely feeds cows a collection of things that causes them to gain weight faster. Eighty percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. go to livestock. Cows are also given bovine growth hormone. In addition, they are fed carbohydrates: sugars from corn. One of the most negative things in human diets is high-fructose corn syrup. That fructose is being fed to the cows to make them obese. But by putting that on our plates and into our hamburgers, we’re also making ourselves obese!  

Not all cows take it lying down. Tell us about a German cow named Yvonne.

[Laughs] Yvonne is the closest thing to a folk hero that bovines have. She escaped on her way to the slaughterhouse. They sent out the police and various squads to find her, but whenever she was sighted, she disappeared again. She managed to elude capture in Germany, which is not like the wilds of South America or Texas, for three months. There was this national drumbeat: Where is Yvonne? It was like Jesse James in American folklore. Finally, she got lonesome and joined a herd in a pasture, and she was captured. But by that point she had become such a national and even international celebrity that they did not send her to the slaughterhouse. So Yvonne, almost uniquely among beef cattle, will live out a long, natural life.

The meat industry is notoriously litigious, as Oprah Winfrey found out. Tell us about ag-gag laws.

The ag-gag laws were set up by a number of states where agricultural interests have enormous political clout. They basically make it impossible to criticize agriculture. The whole purpose is to stop people like the Humane Society of the United States from releasing videotapes showing the barbaric treatment of these animals. This is not something the industry wants to have floating around the Internet—as Oprah found out, and she has much deeper pockets than us. [Laughs]

Your book is not just about negatives—you also introduce us to alternatives. Tell us about the Pu'u O Hoku Ranch in Hawaii.

There’s nothing more like paradise for a cow than to be pastured in Hawaii. The ranch had been largely destroyed by the previous owners through overgrazing and erosion. The new manager, Jann Roney, a grandmother of nine, embarked on turning it around using Allan Savory’s holistic management. It’s intensive grazing but in a way that mimics how, for example, buffalo or wildebeests graze—grazing in one place intensely for a while, then predators like hyenas or lions come along, and the animals move on and graze the next place. Some of the best of these small ranchers mimic that by using fences to move the cattle from one space to another. They eat the grasses and forbs then defecate right on the land, so the manure returns most of the nutrients that had originally been in the plants. It’s a wonderful system. The people know their cows by name, monitor everything very closely, and raise them in a way that gives the cows a good life.

They don’t have much of a retirement program. [Laughs] The cows are being raised for beef—but it’s the sort of beef we would like to see more of. Just as people in this country used to order a cup of coffee and get Maxwell House or Folgers, we’ve moved into an era where people have a choice of different kinds of coffee from East Africa or Indonesia or South America. There’s the same potential for beef.

"Poop power" is a new phrase for me. Is this something I can try at home?

Not unless you have a really, really big family. Biogas generators benefit from economies of scale. In essence, poop has the capacity, when confined in an anaerobic environment—that is, an environment without oxygen—to be turned into something rich in methane. That can then be used to power a generator or be fed into a natural gas pipeline. It’s like having solar panels or a wind turbine. Small ranches and dairies are starting to do this more and more, both to produce electricity and fertilizer.

You’re a veteran of the environmental movement. You organized the first Earth Day in 1970. Are you optimistic about humanity’s chances of surviving without destroying the world?

I used to give these typical environmental talks where, if I was successful, everybody in the audience felt like committing hara-kiri afterwards. Then one day, driving home after one of my talks, my brilliant wife said: “You know, Denis, you’re a great Darwinist. Have you ever thought of what the survival dividend of pessimism is?” [Laughs heartily] Of course, she hit the nail on the head. If you don’t have any hope, there is no hope.

When you look at the last couple decades of human history, it’s difficult to find much progress on the big international environmental issues like global warming, the pollution of the ocean, or the extinction of species. These are all dramatically worse than they were in 1970. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful.

Most of our messages these days are about cows. We can see a clear path in getting to a place where cows are healthier and treated better, where the environment is protected and we are all healthier as a consequence. [Pauses] As long as there is a vision that we can achieve that, you have to have hope that we can get there.

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