Musings on Far Beef, Near Beef, and Big Oil

Note: This post may be naive in places, though I believe my point is both correct and important. I have no education in ag economics, and though I’ve read a lot about the beef industry and raising beef, I’ve no direct personal experience. If something I’ve said in this is inaccurate, lacking nuance, totally obvious, or just plain silly, forgive me and then educate me (nicely!) in the comments. It’s also worth noting that I believe the standard in beef should be grass-fed, and it is in my mind. Unless otherwise noted, grass-fed is what I’m talking about.

I’ve been thinking about food and oil lately, and how perhaps the single biggest piece of evidence showing how we’ve let internal combustion go from a tool we use to a crutch propping our economy up in the some of the most absurd ways is found in looking at our food and the economics thereof.

I was talking with an Ag Science student from Penn State the other day and asked him, “How come no one raises beef cattle* around here?” His answer was illuminating to me, as a lifelong Westerner. “The soil is too fertile. You can raise much higher value crops.”

At the time, I just thought, huh, that’s weird. Coming from places where many types of agriculture were rare because it was too hard to raise them, this idea that you can grow about anything, so pick what makes the most money was a flip in paradigms for me.

I let that thought sink in for a few hours and then it occurred to me why that is really weird. The Happy Valley is big, and houses quite a few people, but there is also quite a bit of ag land. If people from the Happy Valley ate what was raised in the Happy Valley, save for a few luxuries that can’t be grown here, the economics of food would be vastly different. All of a sudden, it would be worth it to raise some beef, pork, chicken, along with veggies and grains. The full diversity of what can be grown here and what is eaten here would be raised somewhere in the area. The price of beef here wouldn’t have much to do with the price of beef in Montana or Iowa. It would be enough to pay for inputs and provide a living wage to the Happy Valley rancher.

The fact that we can pick and choose the crops that make the most money considering soil fertility and climate is symptomatic of our dependence on fossil fuels. Without relatively cheap fossil fuels, it would be impractical to raise beef somewhere in the Mid-West and ship it here. As it is, grass-fed ranchers in PA have to compete with feedlot beef from the many states away, no wonder very few people raise beef here and people regard it as so expensive!

It’s pretty mind-blowing, when you think about it. This is cheaper?

  1. Drill for oil, probably on another continent altogether.
  2. Transport the crude to a U.S. refinery.
  3. Refine it into either fuel or fertilizer.
  4. Transport cattle from their place of birth to a feedlot, using that fuel.
  5. Use the fertilizer to grow corn for feed in enormous monocultures.
  6. Harvest and transport the corn to the feedlot using the fuel.
  7. Feed grain to an animal who is meant to eat grass and only grass.
  8. Feed it antibiotics to keep it from getting sick because those grains are so foreign and upsetting to a ruminant’s digestive system.
  9. Feed him hormones to keep him eating.
  10. Treat his shit as toxic waste because it’s too concentrated to actually use as fertilizer (and besides, there’s fossil fuels for that!)
  11. Slaughter and butcher the beef.
  12. Transport the meat all over the country using lots of fuel, so that you can finally….
  13. Deliver it to the consumer.

And this is more expensive?

  1. Raise the beef to maturity on its natural feed (grass!) and in one location for its entire lifetime, keeping it healthier and likely not requiring antibiotics. Definitely no hormones needed.
  2. Slaughter and butcher the beef.
  3. Deliver it to the consumer within 100 miles or so (closer food systems are more feasible in a place like PA than it would be in MT where the population is so spread out).

It’s astounding that the former system results in cheaper meat for the consumer, but it’s very symptomatic of our complete dependence on fossil fuels and all the ways that changes our economy.** Occam’s razor no longer applies.

Subsidies are the other game-changer in this equation. Corn is heavily subsidized (as of 2002, a bushel of corn cost 50 cents more to produce than it did to buy***), allowing it to make economic sense to feed grain to ruminants. On the other hand, I once looked up the subsidies received by the grass-based rancher I bought from in Montana, and it was very, very small compared to the size of her operation.

I’d love to see the actual numbers run comparing the REAL cost of raising a grain-fed beef compared to grass-fed. However, it seems to me you hand a rancher a few hundred bucks for a quarter of grass-fed beef and a few cents to the government for subsidies. Whereas, you can go to the grocery for a corn-fed steak that traveled hundreds of miles from the point of it’s death to get to you. You might hand a ten to the cashier, but you’ll also hand a few bucks to Uncle Sam to pay for all the inputs he subsidizes.

Modern agriculture is a reflection of our modern economy, which has been perverted by a total dependence on oil, and externalized, hidden costs such as subsidies, environmental damage, and public health issues. Local, sustainable food may be more expensive, but only as long as it’s a ’boutique’ item and a tiny share of the market. The only way we’ll ever subvert this paradigm is, you guessed it, buying from your local grass-based rancher and farmer.


*Obviously, a few folks do, but incredibly few compared to Montana. I see lush green pastures all over the place that just get mowed, and not even for hay.
** There are other ways the grain feeding beef can save money, mostly in that it takes less time to raise the beef to slaughter weight.

1 Comment

  1. I’d say if there were one area of my life I could be much more mindful of — it is my consumption of animals. Buying locally raised/ethically raised animals should be a higher priority. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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