American folklore sings the praises of wide-open, wild lands where the buffalo roam. For many years I lived in Kansas in the American heartland and saw bison roaming the Konza prairie. But I soon learned how wild bison have been replaced by cattle, and bison are often enclosed, farmed or killed.
More than 99% of North American prairie is now farmland for cattle and animal feed crops like corn, soy and milo. This kind of farming is hard on the planet, with little benefit for anyone. Globally, for example, beef cattle use 60% of farmland but provide less than 2% of global calories. Native grasslands become feed crops, irrigated pasture or industrial sheds confining billions of animals. Amber waves of grain are replaced by genetically engineered feed crops drenched in pesticides.
Our national pride touts a foundation of innovation and independence, but there’s nothing innovative about a meat industry propped up by subsidies while harming workers, family farmers, animals and the environment. It’s an industry that pollutes air and water and puts public health at risk.
We’re told that if we don’t support this system, we aren’t doing our patriotic duty to support American farmers. Meanwhile corporate meat producers are stamping out small, independent farmers through consolidation, market manipulation and imports.
We’re also told that buying local meat undoes the environmental damage of factory farming, but that’s more marketing ploy than climate strategy. Transportation accounts for just a fraction of meat production’s carbon costs. For the environment it matters less where we produce meat or how we produce it than how much we produce and consume.
And national food policy makes it difficult to be a small or independent farmer. Unequal access to land and historically unjust federal policies make it even harder for Black and brown farmers. Meanwhile national subsidy and crop insurance systems support livestock feed more than food for people. Market domination means small farmers can often only survive by growing animal feed for corporate buyers.
Climate change, biodiversity loss and aridification make our food system untenable. The United States is facing extreme historic drought, heat, and the depletion of groundwater. In June heat led to thousands of cattle deaths in Kansas. In California, the fifth-largest global economy, water spent on producing meat threatens the production of one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.
Yet between Memorial Day and Labor Day, people in the United States eat 818 hot dogs per second and gobble countless grilled burgers, steaks and chicken breasts. We should question how overeating the most environmentally damaging, corporate-sponsored foods has become intertwined with patriotism.
Another way is possible. I taught at Kansas State University, the nation’s first land-grant university — and now, just up the road, the Land Institute is working to displace the current food system with perennial grains and legumes that provide food without destroying ecosystems. Legumes are higher in fiber and have a longer shelf-life than beef, and the plants sequester carbon and fix nitrogen in the soil — using 20 times less land and water than cattle, producing no manure or slaughter pollution, and involving no killing of bison.
To help build a different type of food system, you can:
Maybe our values are more patriotic when they involve less meat and more care for communities and wild neighbors.
Write to me with your questions at EarthFriendlyDiet@BiologicalDiversity.org.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity