America’s Obsession with Beef Was Born of Conquest

America’s Obsession with Beef Was Born of Conquest
Brandon Pollock /The Courier via AP

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats launched the Green New Deal in February, its enemies had a cow. The policies proposed would not just regulate beef production, Donald Trump complained in one of his barely coherent tweets, but would “permanently eliminate” the animals themselves. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” far-right buffoon Sebastian Gorka told the Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

Of course, none of that was quite true. There was no talk of banning beef. But the aim of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions would entail rethinking food production to some extent: Agriculture is responsible for roughly one-tenth of America's emissions. More important, the estimated 95 million cattle in the United States burp methane into the atmosphere, a gas that has a more intense warming effect than carbon dioxide. Scaling back the amount of beef Americans consume would be an obvious solution, as AOC suggested when she remarked that “maybe we shouldn't be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Her opponents' insistence on equating red meat with freedom and American identity, however, shows how difficult it would be to implement even the slightest reforms to the institutions that make beef so abundant.

As Joshua Specht shows in Red Meat Republic, the wide availability of beef has long been deeply entwined with the expansion of American commerce and power. As cattle ranching and meat-packing transformed the economy in the late nineteenth century, the United States acquired new territories, the apparatus of the state grew, and Americans came to expect cheap and plentiful meat. Our desire for hamburgers is inseparable from the economic system we have set up. It follows that only a broader challenge to the system could alter our patterns of consumption, even if your main beef with those patterns is concerns with how cows are treated or what humans ought to eat. 

Understanding the structures and practices that promote beef in this country requires an uncommonly wide vision. In Red Meat Republic, Specht has brought to the story of American beef the kind of attention to commodity chains that is becoming increasingly fashionable in history, and for good reason. The most seemingly individual and intimate choice to consume something presupposes a far-flung story of the factors that produced it and the labor that went into it. Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, which told of how the American South's most famous product made and remade global capitalism, is probably the best known; after in-depth studies of bananas, chocolate, cocaine, guano, sugar, and ostrich plumes, there is even a whole web site on “commodity histories.” Explaining how Americans came to eat so much beef and to pay so little for it turns out to be an especially gargantuan enterprise, which Specht pulls off with aplomb, in accessible and sprightly prose.

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