Eating cow flesh isn't just cruel to animals, says David Nibert. It has led to untold human suffering and is now wrecking our environment
Since I became an advocate for animals - living as a vegan on ethical and political grounds and focusing my scholarship on animal issues - I have been reproached by friends, family and colleagues. They urge that, instead, I should focus on discussing and helping to alleviate human suffering. I respond that this is exactly what I am doing. The oppression and suffering of animals and of so many humans are too closely tied together to separate. Work that helps eliminate animal oppression helps marginalised and devalued human beings as well.
Like most people, I grew up with no idea that my culturally induced appetite for "meat" was tied to vast suffering and political repression. The fast-food industry plied my generation with endless ads for double cheeseburgers and quarter-pounders, often made with "meat" imported from Latin America, where US-supported dictators repressed their peoples and expropriated huge areas of land for ranching. The price of cheap hamburgers was murder, displacement and rainforest destruction.
The fates of the peoples of the Americas have been entangled with the destiny of cows for centuries. The practice of raising and eating captive animals was taken to the western hemisphere by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Live cows, cow skins, horns, body fat and preserved flesh were sent back to Europe, equalling or exceeding in value sugar and other plantation crops. Like most sentient beings, cows - who experience pleasure, joy and meaningful social relationships as well as fear, stress and pain - resist capture, control and confinement. Whips were used to drive them; calves were branded with hot irons and weaned by having their tongues split open.
Increased animal suffering of this sort was made possible by the conquest, murder and displacement of indigenous peoples in most of Latin America, as continuous expropriation of land built huge ranching empires, and the increasing need for pasture led to greater violence against Native Americans. The same occurred in North America, where the "cattle kings" of the Midwest used tenant ranchers to cultivate their lands and control their cows, in a 19th-century arrangement that resembled the feudal manorial systems of the Middle Ages. The fates of animals and humans were closely intertwined.
The expansion of this oppressive, violent and profitable trade in cow flesh and skin contributed to the war that resulted in the expropriation of nearly half of Mexico. Ranchers in Texas, and those pushing out from the East, moved to flood the Western plains with cows. But first, the US military had to kill or further displace countless Native Americans, while millions of buffalo and thousands of wolves, bears and other animals had to be slaughtered.
With indigenous peoples and other "pests" removed, the number of captive cows in the West grew from an estimated 5 million in 1870 to 26.5 million in 1890. Seizing the opportunity, British companies bought vast areas of Western plains land and, by 1884, controlled about 20 million acres.
Hundreds of thousands of cows and other animals were forced into "cattle cars" and transported to the slaughterhouses of St Louis and Chicago.
Millions of live cows also were shipped to Britain in a passage much like the journeys of the notorious slave ships transporting humans from Africa.
Traders packed the animals so tightly they could not lie down to sleep. To keep them on their feet, they were beaten by low-paid crew members whose families were made destitute when overloaded "cattle ships" were lost to storms.
These patterns of entangled oppression in "meat" production continue today.
In Brazil, hundreds are murdered and thousands displaced every year by ranchers whose unending expansion, especially into Amazonian rainforests, is making the country the world's leading "beef" producer. Corporate soy producers there use similarly violent and destructive practices to supply feed for animals destined to become burgers in Europe. And few realise that the displacement and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan are tied closely to the expropriation of new pasture by groups from northern Sudan who supply cow flesh to the affluent in northern Africa and the Middle East.
Continued use of other animals as food is inextricably intertwined with worker exploitation, environmental destruction, Third World repression and malnutrition, fresh water depletion, oil depletion (and warfare over control of remaining reserves), climate change and increasing levels of the diseases of the affluent. With the human population at 6.6 billion and growing, it is projected that by 2020 global "livestock" production will use 80 per cent of the world's agricultural land.
"Meat"-based diets are inherently inefficient, exploitative, cruel and ultimately unsustainable. For human beings concerned about the ongoing oppression of humans, cows and other animals becoming a vegan may be the most effective political action of a lifetime.
David Nibert is a professor of sociology at Wittenberg University in the US. He is the author of Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation , published by Rowman and Littlefield, £61, and spoke on the "beef" trade at the British Sociological Association annual conference last week.