Tony Vagneur: Beef … it’s more than what’s for dinner
Around 1800 to 1825, there were roughly 60 million buffalo ranging over the mountains and prairie. Early on in the white man’s appearance, very few got slaughtered for meat, the huge majority got killed for robes, some were killed in a misguided attempt to run the natives off the land and many just for fun. By the late 1800s, there might have been 1,500 left in the U.S., total.
In 2018, the beef cattle population in the U.S. was tagged at 94.3 million. If you read the mainstream rags, you’ve likely heard that “cow farts” are a major contributor to climate change, or so some pundits claim. Never mind that most methane emitted by cattle is through belches as they ruminate, intently chewing their cud.
Closely related on the evolutionary scale, buffalo and cattle both have rumens, those “first stop” stomachs that require additional mastication, of which release of methane is a by-product. On a comparison scale, this would seem to indicate that methane gas by ruminants could possibly have been a big issue to our environment long before the white man ever got to this country. Or maybe it means that cattle and methane aren’t that big a deal to air quality today. Or just what the hell am I talking about?
Maybe I’m knit-picking, but such talk tends to open the conversation about cattle and red meat. Vegans and vegetarians aren’t quite disposed to eating big, juicy steaks, but a preponderance of the world’s population is.
In 2018, beef exports (by weight) were up 7% from 2017 and beat the 2011 previous all-time record by 5%. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the ASEAN region are starting to gobble the stuff up like cheap hors d’oeuvres at a gallery opening. Dollar value of exports from 2017 to 2018 increased from $7.27 billion to $8.33 billion. If we strike a trade deal with China, these numbers will be even more impressive.
Technology and better management have made cattle ranchers and feedlots more productive than ever before. When I was a kid, the average weight of a calf was around 500 pounds. Today it’s more like 850, so although it sounds strange at first, you can raise more beef with fewer cattle. My grandfather would be impressed.
If all this statistical talk about beef and cows leaves an undesirable taste in your mouth, go brush your teeth. Wait! Toothbrushes are a byproduct of cattle as is toothpaste. Want to have a snack instead; don’t make s’mores as marshmallows contain gelatin from cattle. Do you use those “camel hair” paint brushes as you crank out a landscape or portrait painting? Yep, that “camel” hair is actually fine hair from the ears and tails of bovines, deftly positioned on the end of a paint brush handle. If you’re a vegan, you have to think about it — you can’t wear leather or wool, you can’t eat gelatin or gelatinous products like ice cream, and the list goes on.
Yeah, a lot of items are dependent on cattle for their existence. As a matter of fact, in the beginning, cattle hides were the main reason for raising cows, kind of like robes were the big thing in the beginning of buffalo slaughter. People in Texas and others in the West who managed to butcher some of the wayward Spanish cattle acquired a taste for beef and wanted to share it.
Then, the big cattle drives got Texas Longhorns to the westward-expanded railroads so the dependence on beef as a dietary staple increased across the U.S. Eventually, refrigerated rail cars made it possible to ship more beef, more economically, to the East coast, and cattle ranching became a mainstay of the American economy.
Insulin is perhaps the best-known pharmaceutical derived from cattle. Of the 2.9 million diabetics who require insulin daily, it takes the pancreases from 26 cows to provide enough insulin to keep one diabetic person alive for a year. Yes, there is synthetic insulin but it has not entirely replaced animal insulin.
Daily items we use such as soap, lipstick, face and hand cream come from the inedible fats from beef. Feel like sitting down at the piano and tickling the ivories — except those keys aren’t made from ivory, not anymore — they’re sliced from the bones of cattle. Cowhide is a competitor of pigskin in the manufacture of footballs. Need sutures for that cut on your hand, need something to settle an upset stomach, need to glue the back of a chair — the list goes on and on. Shoes, what about shoes? Car seats?
We need cows, whether you eat them or not. The next time you’re cruising a supermarket aisle, thank a cow.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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