Cattle and Capitalism


"In order to obtain the optimum weight gain in the minimum time, feedlot managers administer a panoply of pharmaceuticals to the cattle, including growth-stimulating hormones and feed additives. Anabolic steroids, in the form of small time-release pellets, are implanted in the animals' ears. The hormones slowly seep into the bloodstream, increasing hormone levels by two to five times. Cattle are given estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone. The hormones stimulate the cells to synthesize additional protein, adding muscle and fat tissue more rapidly. Anabolic steroids improve weight gain by 5 to 20 percent, feed efficiency by 5 to 12 percent, and lean meat growth by 15 to 25 percent. Over 95 percent of all feedlot-raised cattle in the United States are currently being administered growth-promoting hormones.

In the past, managers used to add massive doses of antibiotics to the cattle feed to promote growth and fight diseases that run rampant through the animals' cramped, contaminated pens and feedlots. In 1988, over 15 million pounds of antibiotics were used as feed additives for livestock in the United States. While the cattle industry claims that it has discontinued the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle feed, antibiotics are still being given to dairy cows, which make up nearly 15 percent of all beef consumed in the United States. Antibiotic residues often show up in the meat people consume, making the human population increasingly vulnerable to more virulent strains of disease-carrying bacteria.

Castrated, drugged, and docile, cattle spend long hours at the feed troughs consuming corn, sorghum, other grains, and an array of exotic feeds. The feed is saturated with insecticides. Today 80 percent of all the herbicides used in the United States are sprayed on corn and soybeans, which are used primarily as feed for cattle and other livestock. When consumed by the animals, the pesticides accumulate in their bodies. The pesticides are then passed along to the consumer in the finished cuts of beef. Beef ranks second only to tomatoes as the food posing the greatest cancer risk due to pesticide contamination, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Beef is the most dangerous food in herbicide contamination and ranks third in insecticide contamination. The NRC estimates that beef pesticide contamination represents about 11 percent of the total cancer risk from pesticides of all foods on the market today.

Some feedlots have begun research trials adding cardboard, newspaper, and sawdust to the feeding programs to reduce costs. Other factory farms scrape up the manure from chicken houses and pigpens, adding it directly to cattle feed. Cement dust may become a particularly attractive feed supplement in the future, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, because it produces a 30 percent faster weight gain than cattle on only regular feed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials say that it's not uncommon for some feedlot operators to mix industrial sewage and oils into the feed to reduce costs and fatten animals more quickly.

At Kansas State University, scientists have experimented with plastic feed, small pellets containing 80 to 90 percent ethylene and 10 to 20 percent propylene, as an artificial form of cheap roughage to feed cattle. Researchers point to the extra savings of using the new plastic feed at slaughter time when upward of '20 pounds of the stuff from each cow's rumen can be recovered, melt[ed] down and recycle[d] into new pellets.' The new pellets are much cheaper than hay and can provide roughage requirements at a significant savings."


"The very word 'cattle' comes from the same etymological root as the word 'capital.' In many European languages, the word 'cattle' was synonomous with the words 'chattel' and 'capital.' Cattle meant property. Wilfred Funk, in his book Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, points out that a chattel mortgage was long considered a cattle mortgage and up until the sixteenth century the English people spoke of 'goods and 'Cattals' rather than 'goods and chattels.' The Spanish word for cattle, ganado, meant property or ganaderia. Even the Latin word for money, pecunia, comes from the word pecus, meaning cattle.

Cattle was one of the first forms of movable wealth, an asset that could be used as a standard medium of exchange between people and cultures. Both the grain-prodcuing empires of the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean maritime powers traded in cattle. In ancient Greece, families often gave their female children cattle- derived names to emphasize their 'worth' and to attract male suitors. Polyboia means 'worth many cows,' Euboia meeans 'rich in cows,' and Phereboia means 'bringing in many cows.'"

(Jeremy Rifkin, "Beyond Beef")


Descendants of Aryan nomads invaded the Indian subcontinent around 1750 B.C. They were beef eaters. After 600 B.C., the Aryan overlords and their Brahman priests could not supply enough beef for their own appetites and the masses. The cause of the "beef crisis" was a combination of population growth and depleting natural resources, including grazing land.

The peasants grew angry at the Brahman caste and the Vedic chieftans who ruled India. This proved fertile ground for the growth of Buddhism, a new religious sect that was opposed to the taking of any animal life. A religion that attacked the killing of beef was welcomed by a population forced to watch the extravagent dining habits of the ruling-class. A struggle between Buddhism and Hinduism lasted nine centuries until Hinduism prevailed, but adopting many of the practices, including the slaughter of cattle.

When I was in high-school, I remember teachers making racist comments about how stupid the Indians were since "so many of them went to bed hungry at night, but they allowed all that beef to just walk around and go to waste."

Rifkin makes the case for a more nuanced understanding of the role of the cow in the Indian peasant economy. At present there are 200 million cows in India, freely roaming about. These cows provide most of India's dairy requirements. The ox provides traction for 60 million small farmers whose land feeds 80% of the population. Of the 700 million tons of cattle dung that is produced each year, about half is used as fertilizer and the other half for cooking fuel. Marvin Harris, author of "The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig", estimates that dung produces the thermal equivalent of 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal, or 68 million tons of wood. In Africa and Latin American, huge swaths of tropical rainforests have been cut down to provide cooking fuel. Depletion of the rain forest in Africa has created the conditions in which the Ebola virus and AIDS can migrate from animal to human populations.

Cow dung is mixed with water in order to produce household flooring. Each day small children follow the family cow around collecting excrement for a variety of household uses. Cattle hides are used in the leather industry, which is the largest in the world. Even the carcasses of ancient cows are solw do slaughterhouses and used as a source of meat for non-Hindus.

Cattle do not compete with human population for arable lands. In one study, it was found that less than 20 percent of the cattle diet in West Bengal is composed of foodstuffs edible by humans. The cattle subsist on a diet of household garbage, chaff, stalks and leaves. The are also fed oil cakes made of cottonseed, soybean, and coconut residues that are inedible by people.

I supply this information not in order to point to some kind of alternative life-style for non-Hindu populations, but simply to illustrate another way that cattle can interact with a political economy. My information, of course, comes from Rifkin and not any sources that I have explored myself. Any errors that Ruhal or Rakesh can point out would be greatly appreciated. Or, if they have a different analysis of the role of the cow in India, I would invite them to comment. (Not as if they need an invitation from anybody!)


Columbus's interest in India has a lot to do with the fact that it was a major source of spices. Beef eaters in Europe relied on spices such as pepper, ginger root and cloves to mask the flavor of rotting meat. When he "discovered" America, he found no spices but plenty of grazing land. He introduced cattle to the Americas on January 2, 1494 when a number were unloaded in Haiti. Today 400 million head of cattle inhabit the Americas.

The Spanish continued introducing longhorn cattle throughout the next two centuries, where they thrived. In the 17th century, the population of Caracas, Venezuela ate 50 percent more beef than the citizens of Paris, even though they were outnumbered by 10 to 1. By the 1870s there were over 13 million head of cattle in the pampas of Argentina alone. Many ruling class families in Latin America today are descendants of the early cattle importers. They grew rich satisfying the wants of beef-hungry Europeans and their wealth became more and more concentrated. By 1924, less than 3 percent of the ranchers in the central valley of Chile controlled 80 percent of the grazing land.

As early as the 17th century, the British had become the most ravenous beef eaters in Europe, especially the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. The drive for more pastureland to satisfy their habit caused them to pillage Scotland and Ireland. Soon to follow were the North American plains, the Argentinian pampas, the Australian outback and the grasslands of New Zealand.

The British gentry has a particular taste for highly fatted beef and they became obsessed with obese animals. It was common to see oil paintings in a lord's estate of his most corpulent animals. Prize- winning animals --in other words, the fattest-- became a symbol of ruling class power and prestige, much as Rolls-Royces are today.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the British home market demand for fatty beef exceeded the supply. Scotland and Ireland had become overgrazed. In the early 1870s, reports began filtering back to English financial houses about the immense grazing land available in the western United States.

Of course, there was only one problem. The grazing land was occupied by buffalo and the Indians who depended on them for their survival. The solution to this problem will be discussed in my next post.


David Wright Hamilton, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that an "alien ecologist might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere.." The modern livestock industry and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe, from Australia to the western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass meat producers and their herds of ungulates.

Take California. In the late eighteenth century when the cattle herds arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, the region presented itself as a Mediterranean landscape, but of a sort that had been extinguished in Europe for many centuries. There were meadows with perennial bunchgrass, beardless wild rye, oat grass, perennial forbs: 22 million acres of such prairie and 500,00 acres of marsh grass. Beyond this, there were 8 million acres of live oak woodlands and parklike forests. Beyond and above this, chaparral.

By the 1860s, in the wake of the gold rush, some 3 million cattle were grazing California's open ranges; the degradation was rapid, particularly as ranchers had been overstocking to cash in on the cattle boom. Floods and drought between 1862 and 1865 consummated the ecological crisis. In the spring of 1863, 97,000 cattle were grazing in parched Santa Barbara County. Two years later, only 12,100 remained. By the mid-1860s, in Terry Jordan's words, "many ranges stood virtually denuded of palatable vegetation." In less than a century, California's pastoral utopia had been destroyed; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin, or north, to colder and drier terrain.

These days travelers heading north through California's Central valley can gaze at mile upon mile of environmental wreckage: arid land except where irrigated by water brought in from the north, absurdly dedicated to producing cotton. Some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, a fierce stench and clouds of dust herald the Harris Beef feedlot. On the east side of the interstate several thousand steers are penned, occasionally doused by water sprays. After a few minutes of this Dantesque spectacle the barren landscape resumes, with one of California's state prisons, at Coalinga--unlike the beef feedlot, secluded from view--lying just over the horizon to the west.

California is now America's largest dairy state, and livestock agriculture uses almost one-third of all irrigation water. It takes 360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (irrigation for grain, trough water for stock), which is why, further east in the feedlot states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, along with the Texas panhandle, the Ogallala aquifer has been so severely depleted. (California's Central Valley itself faces increasing problems of salty water from excessive use of groundwater.)


Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow's shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world's second-largest grain importer, while a dietary "pattern" based on excellent bread was vanishing.

Governments--prodded by the World Bank--have plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production, which favors large, rich producers and penalizes small subsistence farmers. In Mexico the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is now Mexico's second-largest crop by area. At the same time, the area of land producing the staples--corn, rice, wheat and beans--for poor folk there have fallen relentlessly. Mexico is now a new corn importer, from rich countries such as Canada and the United States, wiping out millions of subsistence farmers, who have to migrate to the cities or to El Norte. Mexico feeds 30 percent of its grain to livestock--pork and chicken for urban eaters--while 22 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.

Multiply this baneful pattern across the world. Meanwhile, the classic pastoralists, who have historically provided most of the meat in Africa with grazing systems closely adapted to varying environments, are being marginalized. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale.

(From the "Beat the Devil" column in the April 22, 1996 Nation magazine)


As stupid, irrational and self-destructive a system capitalism is, it reached new depths when it fostered the development of cattle- ranching in Central America in the early 1970s.

The growth of McDonald's, Burger King and other fast food outlets had created an insatiable demand for beef. These types of restaurants had no need for the choice, fat-stuffed grain-fed beef that were found in super markets. They could get by on the sort of tougher, lower- grade beef that was typical of cattle that subsisted on grass alone, since the meat would be ground up anyhow. The free-range "criollo" cattle of Central America made a perfect fit for this expanding market.

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The "Alliance for Progress" aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. "Growth" in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. "Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture." This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas "municipo" of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

(Information for this post comes from Robert G. Williams "Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America", Chapel Hill Press, 1986. This book, along with George Black's "Triumph of the People" helped me understand the Sandinista revolution more than any others. In my final post on the beef question I want to suggest some socialist solutions to this problem that threatens not only the natural order, but humanity which is an integral part of this order.)


Dogmatic Marxism tends to sneer at green politics as reformist. After all, if Vice President Al Gore can write a book called "Fate of the Earth" that incorporate a number of environmental themes, how anticapitalist can the green movement be?

In discussing the particular problem of cattle-ranching, it is not to hard for most list members to see that it is extremely destructive to precious resources such as soil, water and vegetation. Capitalist exploitation of these resources in order to provide cheap beef to the population of the advanced capitalist nations threatens to upset ecosystems that preserve all life, including human life. While in the process of upsetting ecosystems that took thousands of years to develop, capitalism also destroys the lives of campesinos who are expelled from precious land. That land which can produce corn and beans for the downtrodden of the South is instead used to satisfy the craving for beef in the North.

James O'Connor, the founder and editor of the journal "Capitalism, Nature and Socialism", has traveled farther in developing a Marxist critique to these problems than any other contemporary thinker. His has articulated a theory of the "second contradiction of capitalism" that explains why environmental degradation is an integral element of capitalism today and not subject to reformist solutions.

In an essay "Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible" that appears in a collection "Is Capitalism Sustainable" edited by Martin O'Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls "simple reproduction" and what many greens call "maintenance" is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O'Connor, as capital's power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains "when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers." The unintended result is that the worker's loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about "globalization".

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the "conditions of production". The "conditions of production" require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the "personal conditions of production", *environment* which he termed "natural or external conditions of productions" and *urban infrastructure*, the "general, communal conditions of production".

All three of these "conditions of productions" are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the "conditions of production" were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don't realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O'Connor calls the "second contradiction". He says, "Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the 'productivity' of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs."

O'Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the "first contradiction" (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

It is the combination of these two contradictions that will mark 21st century capitalism. Marxists have to be sensitive to both and devise ways to mobilize workers and peasants in a revolutionary struggle to abolish these contradictions once and for all.