Because we’ve stuffed staggering numbers of cows on factory farms we live in a cow toilet

[ Book review of “Cowed: The hidden impactof 93 million cows” by Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer]

Hayes, Denis and Gail. 2015. Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.    W.W. Norton & Company.

I’ve read many books on cows such as Montgomery’s “A Cow’s life: the surprising history of cattle”, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma,  so I hesitated to buy yet another book about cows.  But I’m so glad I did. Not only is the writing lively and interesting, but much has happened in ranching and dairy cattle operations since I last read about cows.  And it’s a big picture view that goes way beyond cattle to the ecosystems they affect.

I have a soft spot for cows after staying on a 200-acre cattle ranch in Belize.  The rancher had a name for each of one of the cows in his herd, and had stories about them all.  They had sweet dispositions and huge liquid brown eyes– I could see how you could come to love them. Towards the end of the first day he confessed he hated to kill them and rarely did — they were his friends.  He made enough money from cashews and other crops so that he could afford not to kill them, and maybe cow “fertilizer” was the secret of his crop success, saving their lives.

My affection for these cows caused me to skim the sections about the horrible ways corporate agriculture treats cows.  I was shocked to learn how little has been done since Temple Grandin and many others brought attention to the brutal way cattle were treated and slaughtered.

The main goal of this book is to get people and their pets to eat less beef so we can cut the number of cattle in half, get rid of concentrated animal feed operations (CAFO), and grass fed cattle to prevent them from turning ranch land into desert, poison aquifers, increase global warming gases, contribute to dead zone eutrophication, and use less fossil fuel energy.

And believe me, you will want to eat only organic grass-fed beef for a long time (hopefully for the rest of your life) after you read this book when you learn about all the hormones, antibiotics, and multidrug-resistant microbes like  Campylobacter, Salmonella, Enterococcus,  E. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus that might be in your next steak or hamburger.

Bad Cows!

Too much finite fossil fuel used:  David & Marcia Pimentel estimate that 40 calories of fossil fuels (mainly oil and natural gas) are used to produce 1 calorie of beef protein when you consider all the fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel required to grow, harvest, and transport cow feed. And top pump the water for drinking or cleaning up the waste of factory farm animals, and processing the water polluted by their feces and urine. And this calculation doesn’t include the energy to transport, process, refrigerate, package, and cook the meat.  Milk is energy intensive too: the ratio for milk is 14 to 1.4.

Biodiversity loss.    With 1.65 billion bovines and 7 billion humans consuming 40% of Earth’s net primary production, we’re not leaving much food or land for all the other life on the planet.  The biomass of farm animals, especially cattle, weighs over 20 times the zoomass of all wild vertebrates. If human and farm animal populations grow another 50% we’ll wipe out most of the remaining life forms on the planet.

The Dust Bowl: Homesteaders and their oxen plowed up the prairies to plant annual wheat and corn, which transpired more water than deep-rooted perennial prairie.   The result was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when 5 million inches of topsoil across 10 million acres that took thousands of years to build up blew away.  In many areas, that was more than three-fourths of the topsoil.

The Ogallala is one of Earth’s largest aquifers, the water used in the 10 great Plains states that provides a third of all groundwater used to irrigate to grow a fifth of our food and 40% of the grain for grain-fed beef .  Over the last century, however, we’ve pumped out two-thirds of the total water, enough to fill Lake Erie.  Many geologists expect most of the Ogallala to run out of water in 25 to 30 years, and perhaps run out of “usable” water as soon as 2020.  The fossil water in the Ogallala is not renewable. Over the years, water levels have fallen by more than one hundred feet in parts of four states. The “tragedy of the commons” is writ large over the Ogallala. Like climate disruption, aquifer depletion is the type of problem that human minds aren’t well designed to handle: The problem spans generations, conditions are only gradually worsening, and most people find it in their short-term interest to behave in ways that benefit them but harm future generations. Underground water ignores property lines, so there’s no way to conserve the water under your land unless all your neighbors do the same. Therefore, it seems logical to pump out as much water as hard and fast as you can, because otherwise your neighbors will pump it out.

1.1 billion tons of manure and piss every year.   If this could be used as fertilizer instead of energy-intensive natural gas-based fertilizers, we’d save a lot of energy and build up healthy soils.   But little is,

because raw manure is expensive to truck more than about six miles. And chances are the farms next door also have cows, or prefer commercial fertilizer for a known amount of nutrients and lack of smell. Instead, there are tens of thousands of “lagoons” full of untreated manure and piss sewage containing chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, salts, and disease causing microorganisms. Each ton can be 110 times more polluting (as far as biochemical oxygen demand) than raw municipal sewage. Concentrated livestock and poultry produce 3 times more raw waste than humans.  Cows poop about a dozen times a day.   Lagoons can overflow and pollute aquifers and waterways with excessive nutrients.

Cows are polluting the Ogallala (and other aquifers). The aquifer’s water was once of such fine quality that you could drink it unfiltered and untreated. Now, however, the EPA says that pesticides, fertilizers, feedlot wastes, trace metals, and volatile organic compounds have contaminated much of it.

Climate Change. Feed production and processing, the fermentation that goes on inside cows, and the decomposition of cow manure release three warming gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.   In 2013 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2013 concluded that livestock account for 14.5% of anthropogenic  greenhouse gas. Beef cattle are responsible for 41% of livestock emissions, milk cows for another 19%.

Topsoil destruction. “Earth is unique among known space rocks in that it has a thin skin of living dirt. Without dirt there would be neither cows nor humans. Earth has three major regions of fertile loess soils: our Midwest, northern Europe, and northern China. (Loess is easily crumbled buff to brown dirt made of clay, silt, and sand.) These regions provide the bulk of the world’s grain. On the Great Plains, it takes Mother Nature five hundred years to replace one lost inch of loess soil. In North America, 66% of soil loss comes from agricultural activities and another 30% from overgrazing.

Diseases. For centuries the greatest threat to humans from cows was tuberculosis  (though not any more).  In 1900 TB was second only to pneumonia as a cause of death in the U.S.  “It’s bacterial, not viral, diseases that present the greatest threat from factory farms. Cows crowded together stand withers-to-withers in feces and puddles of urine; their hooves, legs, and udders become caked with filth. Clouds of flies buzz around them. Standing in feces and eating a high-grain diet causes cows’ “toes” to grow and curl up, and cattle become lame. An environment that is hell for cows is paradise for germs. Filth on cows’ hides and intestines gets mixed in with their meat during slaughter. Prior to the era of factory farms and pasteurization, bacterial diseases frequently spread from cows to humans. Unpasteurized cow milk was once a common source of typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. Other bacterial diseases that affect both cows and people are anthrax, brucellosis, campylobacteriosis, leptospirosis, listeriosis, and Q fever. Some researchers think the infectious agent that causes Johne’s (pronounced YO-knees) disease in dairy cattle might cause Crohn’s disease in humans.  Today, however, salmonella is the food-borne bacterium that causes the most hospitalizations and deaths, and factory farms are incubators for some of the most dangerous strains. “

Antibiotic Resistance. You are probably aware that a crisis looms ahead as more and more microbes become antibiotic resistant.  A major way this is happening is from the healthy animals in factory farms, who consume 80% of all antibiotics to gain more weight and prevent disease.  Grass-fed cows rarely need antibiotics, but bacteria flourish in cows eating corn (which makes them very sick), so they are given antibiotics.  They are also getting antibiotics for corn another way: from ethanol production. A byproduct of ethanol is Dried Distillers Grain (DDG), which is fed to factory farm animals.  But it is often contaminated with Lactobacilli which thrive in the ethanol mash it comes from. So ethanol producers add antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin to the fermentation tanks.  When factory farm animals eat DDG, they are also eating illegal antibiotics (Olmstead 2012, Laskawy 2012, McKenna 2012).  Since up to 80% of antibiotics can pass through cows intact the end up in soil, water, and groundwater, and can spread to drinking water.

Corn-fed cattle vulnerability. The Hayes explain how it ever came to be that cows ate corn in the first place, since it is so harmful to their health, and wasteful in many ways when there’s grass growing for free, which also makes their meat healthier for human consumption.  In the end America is so dependent on the corn to feed cattle and make ethanol that we’d be very vulnerable if our monoculture corn crops succumbed to disease, drought, or other problems.

Diseases from milk. “When bulk tank samples of raw milk were tested in recent years, pathogenic organisms were found in 0.87 to 12.6% of samples.  Early in the 20th century, the diseases people commonly got from consuming raw milk products were brucellosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Today the danger is more about salmonella, listeriosis, and diseases caused by Campylobacter jejuni and E. coli O157.”

Crohn’s disease. “A few types of bacteria can survive pasteurization. One is Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP), which causes Johne’s disease in cows. It might also be connected with Crohn’s disease in humans, although this theory is controversial. Crohn’s causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and torments over half a million Americans with diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. There is no cure. A genetic predisposition, an infectious agent, and exposure to things in the environment are all implicated in Crohn’s. Curiously, this disease only showed up in the twentieth century, and the incidence is rising.   In 2007, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found that in nearly a quarter of dairy operations surveyed, at least 10% of the cows were infected with Johne’s. Scientists on both sides of this controversy present strong cases. A study of 40 Crohn’s patients and 40 persons without the disease found that the Crohn’s patients had many more MAP bacteria in their guts than the control group.  Clusters of Crohn’s disease patients have been correlated with MAP in water supplies (chlorination doesn’t kill MAP).   On the other hand, when tissue from Crohn’s patients is compared to tissue from cows with Johne’s, differences are found. And people who work with cows don’t seem any more likely to get Crohn’s than other people. The MAP organisms found in Crohn’s patients may simply be bystanders in a sick bowel. A good review of this issue can be found online at the University of Wisconsin Johne’s Information Center.

Milk Terrorism.   Stanford University explained why milk was an ideal target for biological terrorism if infected with botulinum neurotoxin (a.k.a. Botox), the most toxic biological substance known. It blocks neuromuscular transmission and is quite easy to obtain (Wein 2005). “Every year, six billion gallons of milk are pooled at various stages of collection and shipped around the country for rapid consumption. A terrorist could pour a few grams of botulinum toxin into a milk tank on one or more farms. The contaminated milk would be taken to a factory and poured into a raw-milk silo along with milk from other farms. From there it would flow into an even larger product stream. One-millionth of a gram of botulinum toxin can kill an adult. This scenario holds the possibility of killing hundreds of thousands of people, Wein and Liu believe, most of them children”.


Milk hormones. Pregnant cows produce 33 times more natural estrogen than when they’re not pregnant, so milk has a lot of estrogen in it – the source of 60 to 80% of the estrogen and progesterone we consume.   Too much estrogen in male bodies affects their reproductive systems — only 1% of donors of sperm in Israel are healthy and although it is a mystery, some scientists think that dairy products could be to blame.  Excess estrogen may also increase the risk of ovarian, breast, prostate, and testicular cancers.  Growth hormone rBGH has been banned in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada (for good reasons explained in the book), but it’s still allowed in milk in America.  Cows also have endocrine disruptors, probably from perchlorate in water and the pesticides in cow feed, which then accumulate in their fat. Other endocrine disruptors found in cow feed include the five leading herbicides applied to corn and soy in the United States: atrazine; glyphosate; 2,4-D; acetochlor; and metolachlor cows’ fat.


Unhealthy Beef.   Beef has inflammatory heme iron, and processed beef like hot dogs has nitrates and nitrites that can lead to cancer and hardened arteries, salt that can raise blood pressure, carnitine that gut bacteria turn into TMAO which makes it harder to get rid of cholesterol and for cholesterol to bind to artery walls.  Beef has saturated fat that can lead to heart disease and obesity.


Mad Cow Disease (BSE).  It hasn’t gone away, and the Hayes make a good case that it isn’t being tested for properly.  First, farmers aren’t required to have the USDA test downer cows. It’s voluntary.  Since there is no penalty for not testing, and because all hell would break loose if the test was positive, beef producers have a saying “Shoot, shovel, and shut up”.  Second, farms have been prevented from testing their cattle by the USDA.  And more.  Mad cow didn’t just jump species to us – it also killed cats.

In Britain 179,000 cows were known to have the disease, but over 4.4 million cows had to be killed to stop the epidemic and convince people beef and dairy were safe to eat again.


Humans may also have prion diseases similar to Mad Cow.  Maybe so – of 46 patients believed to have Alzheimer’s, autopsies revealed that 6 (13%) of them actually had CJD, and other studies also found up to 5.5% had CJD.   [ My note: I am not sure if the CJD is a human disease or might be coming from cows.]


Prions are truly scary – even after a cow carcass decays it doesn’t destroy the prions, which can bind to clay and minerals and survive in soil for many years, though there’s no evidence that anyone has caught BSE from soil or water.  Even rendering doesn’t destroy prions (rendering is grinding up the animal, cooking it, removing the fat, and drying the remainder into pellets or powder that goes into animal feed, fertilizer, plastics, paint, gelatins, and so on).  It takes incineration at 1,832 F to be sure of destroying prions.



Cow statistics

  • The 93 million cows in the U.S. weigh about 120 billion pounds: 2.5 times as much as humans in America
  • 1% of us have ever milked a cow, even fewer killed one: we are more distant from our food than any civilization
  • We eat too much beef and it’s making us fat and unhealthy
  • Smaller, relatively docile cows were bred from their wild and enormous ancestor, Aurochs, who were driven to extinction, the last ones died in Poland in 1627.
  • There are over 800 breeds of cattle, but most of the cattle represent only a few breeds developed to produce meat and milk, not to survive Great Plains conditions
  • Cattle can breed with bison, yak, banteng, and guar
  • Texas longhorns are a mix of docile eastern cows and nearly wild cattle the Spanish brought over

An unusually long warm and wet spell led to the great days of cattle drives for about 20 years, with herds of about 3,000 cattle driven to rail lines north of Texas by roughly a crew of 10 cowboys.  But dry weather returned, and cattle overgrazed what little grass was left as well as compacting the soil. The lack of vegetation led evaporation, soil erosion, and resulted in desertification. Temperatures ranged from -45 to 110 degrees, killing off half the cattle on the Great Plains died by 1890.

The cowboy myth came about, according to Jennifer Moskowitz, because : [T]he country needed a unifying, nationalist icon to move it beyond the ravages of the Civil War and the Englishness of Southern agrarian society into industrialism and capitalism. . . . Into the West rode the American cowboy, whose mythic figure and setting were equally significant and carefully shaped by authors, artists, and political figures. Ironically . . . the qualities ascribed to the cowboy are identical to those of the English knight.

Here are some more cowboy facts:

  • “Having a horse also mattered. Knight or cowboy, a horse lifts a man into the mythic realm. When mounted, men appear less dwarfed by a big-sky landscape and potentially more dangerous. (This is probably why so many statues and paintings insert a horse under the hero.) Unlike cows, horses hold their heads high, looking proud. It takes skill to ride a horse well. People on foot must literally look up to someone riding a horse.”
  • “Like cows, horses are very large animals, and size matters to cowboys. While researching this book, we talked with a Montana rancher who had experimented with raising Australian Lowline cattle instead of standard Angus cows. His cowboys rebelled—they just didn’t feel right bossing around sweet-natured, hornless, three-and-a-half-foot-tall cows… herding them makes cowboys feel ridiculous”.
  • Despite the movies you’ve seen, cowboys were not white typically, but Hispanic, black, and native American. They weren’t free and self-reliant – nearly all worked for the people who owned the land, working for wages with no union or contract to ensure being paid.


“Because we have stuffed staggering numbers of cows into factory farms, we Americans now live in a cow toilet”.

“As a nation, we eat more cow per capita than do the citizens of any other country except Argentina and Luxembourg.  By dining so heavily on beef, Americans are not only eating high on the food chain but are eating up the food chain itself. We are consuming the environment—the dirt, water, and temperate weather—that keeps us alive. That makes about as much sense as gnawing on our knees for nourishment”.

What to do:

  • Eat bison
  • Eat organic beef, drink organic milk
  • Demand that environmental impact statements be conducted on how cattle is raised and milk produced


Olmstead, J. May 1, 2012. Bugs in the system: how the FDA fails to regulate antibiotics in ethanol production. IATP.

Laskawy, T. May 2, 2012. Do the feds care about antibiotics in animal feed?. Grist.

Laskawy, T. October 29, 2012. Three reasons to have a cow over antibiotics in your meat. Grist.

McKenna, M. April 10, 2012. Antibiotics in Ethanol Grains: Glass half-empty or half-full? Wired.

Wein, L.M., Liui,Y. July 2005. Analyzing a bioterror attack on the food supply: the case of botulinum toxin in milk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 #28.



Aurochs (pronounced OR-ox) were formidable.  This majestic beast was the ancestor of the modern cow and its domestication had already begun thousands of years earlier in Persia and, separately, in India.

Aurochs could outrun, outfight, and generally outcompete today’s cows in any competition but the production of milk and marbled meat.  Male aurochs were black with a pale stripe down their spine; females and calves were a fetching reddish hue. A bull could be six feet tall at his shoulders and weigh over a ton.

Aurochs were driven to extinction by loss of habitat to farming and by domesticated cattle that competed with them for food and infected them with diseases. Homo sapiens inflicted the coup de grâce. In addition to eating aurochs, having a fine collection of silver-tipped aurochs-horn cups to drink from implied nice things about one’s status and manhood. Aurochs held out longest in the forests of Poland because only Polish royalty were allowed to hunt them.  The last aurochs died in Poland in 1627.

From cows’ point of view, they domesticated humans. Those cows that found humans who would protect them from predators and provide them with food and water survived and multiplied, eventually outnumbering aurochs. Humans later transported cows to distant continents where cows thrived and their numbers swelled. Today, humans devote an extraordinary percentage of available land, water, grain, and energy to meeting the needs of cows.

Humans who could tolerate lactose (in particular the Kurgan people of Southwest Asia) were more mobile than farmers, because cows are easier to move around than crops. They were also better-fed, because it’s possible to get five times the calories per acre from cows when they are used for milk rather than meat. More warriors therefore could be raised on the same amount of land, and those warriors could hone their skills by stealing cows from other mobile tribes. When attacked by farmers, the milk drinkers could just retreat (along with their cows). When milk drinkers attacked farmers, the farmers couldn’t leave their crops, had fewer warriors, and often lost women to the raiders (along with opportunities to procreate). Thus the genetic alteration that allowed humans to consume milk spread, along with the language of the milk drinkers.

In his thoughtful book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond attributes the ease of European colonial conquest of America to Europeans’ possession of guns and steel, and to the diseases Europeans carried in their bodies, diseases to which indigenous populations had not developed immunity. To this list we would add another key factor: Europeans had cows.

Eventually, feral Iberian cows (cows that had such minimal contact with humans that they were almost wild) in Texas bred with gentler cows from the East. Their progeny, the Texas longhorns, were meatier and more tractable than Iberians yet still had good survival skills. The rapid expansion of Texas longhorns and Texas-style ranching onto the Great Plains after the Civil War coincided with an unusually warm and wet spell. Ranchers overestimated how many cattle the plains could support. Twenty million cattle, in herds of about three thousand head, each with a crew of about ten cowboys, were driven from Texas to railheads in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. This was the time of the great cattle drives along the Shawnee, Chisholm, Western, and Goodnight-Loving trails—drives that inform folklore and fill movie theaters.

But the weather reverted to normal, the grass dried up, and the resulting overgrazing compacted soils and destroyed perennial grasses that cows favored. The loss of vegetation led to more evaporation, erosion, and even desertification. The summer of 1886 saw temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit; the following winter temperatures plunged to –45 degrees. Unable to tolerate such extremes, half the cattle on the Great Plains died.

By 1890, Texas-style open-range cattle ranching had collapsed.

Beef cattle have done more to define what it means to be American than have dairy cows (sorry, Jefferson). And it was beef cattle, with their horns and a wicked glint in their eye, that elevated cowboys to role model status. Real cowboys came from the lower stratum of society and labored hard and long, in nasty weather, for little pay. So how did a caste of hired (and sometimes enslaved) laborers, who often didn’t even own their own horses, become cultural heroes? The cowboy myth really caught on after the Civil War. A nation deeply divided was in desperate need of heroes both sides could agree on, and cowboys fit the niche.

Although movie cowboys speak English, many of the real cowboys came from the Spanish/Mexican vaqueros. Others were Native Americans, such as Cherokees dispossessed of their land, and former Negro slaves released by the Civil War. The term “cowpoke” was used before the word “cowboy,” because Hispanic cattle herders poked cows with blunt lances.19 Neither “cowboy” nor “cowpoke” has much inherent romance as a word, but a person who poked cows with a stick for a living might have been beyond even the power of Hollywood to romanticize.

An ox isn’t a separate species. It’s just a castrated bull, or occasionally a female cow, that has been selected and trained to work as a draft animal. Many breeds can make fine oxen. In America, teamsters (men who work oxen) usually pick Chianina, Dutch Belted, Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Milking Devon, or Milking Shorthorn.  Oxen usually work in pairs, joined by a yoke. Pioneers preferred oxen to pull their covered wagons because oxen were stronger and steadier than horses, and a yoke allowed them to pull far heavier loads. Oxens’ strong, steady pace also made them superior plow animals for clay or rocky soils. Oxen enabled one man to plow enough acreage to grow more than enough food to feed himself

The word “cowpoke” came from the way Hispanic cattle herders kept cows in line by poking them with a blunt stick .

A key element of the myth is that hard work and initiative will pay off. And for pioneers it often did. The frontier gave cowboys and settlers alike a degree of freedom from being controlled by other people. Out on the range, no midlevel manager was at hand to micromanage how the cowboy wound his lasso or to monitor his bathroom breaks. The cowboy lived hard against the elements, and stupidity was quickly and impersonally punished. He was free to use the land as he wished. There was no time to form a committee to reach a consensus on whether to shoot a wolf or put down a cow with a broken leg. A cowboy had to make snap decisions. He lived in a world of white hats and black hats, no shades of gray. The nineteenth-century cowboy, out on the trail for months at a time with just his gun and his horse, was also a model of self-reliance.

When you take a closer look, however, there are gaping holes in the cowboy’s vaunted self-reliance. Nearly all cowboys labored for other people who owned the land and the cows. Cowboys worked for wages, without the protection of a union or even a written contract.

In Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen speculate on why herders are likely to be more individualistic and violent than farmers. Their theory goes something like this: Cows and sheep are easier to steal than food crops, so the herder has to be constantly on guard and able to fend off rustlers. If he is perceived as weak, he’s in trouble, because he often works alone and far from others. In such an environment, arguments are personal, and a culture based on honor (as opposed to conscience) tends to develop. Farmers, in this theory, are more dependent on each other to bring in harvests, raise barns, and the like, so they have more sense of community and less need of violence.

Cowboys’ golden age occurred just after the Civil War, when the United States was in the process of redefining itself. And the cowboy’s Camelot, the era of the great cattle drives, lasted a mere two decades.

Today America is in the early stages of redefining itself again, in a way that recognizes the finite nature of resources on a solitary blue planet. But the cowboy ideal has not yet ridden into the sunset. Today’s ranchers and affiliated businesses take full advantage of this powerful myth, proudly portraying themselves as individualistic loners. A cynic might note, however, that they have been remarkably unified and effective when it comes to fighting for federal subsidies, but against federal regulation.

He could sell his surplus crops or trade them for goods. As a bonus, oxen fertilized his fields. And they were powered by grass. This was a win/win/win setup.

Wearing cowboy boots to work lifts a guy’s spirits. When a governor of Texas recently switched from cowboy boots to shoes, it made the newspapers. According to consumer researcher Russell W. Belk: “The American cowboy heroic myth is invoked by these boots, along with the characteristics associated with this myth, including rugged individualism, independence, quiet strength, and alienation from civilization.”

A positive emotional response to cowboys is practically ingrained in most Americans. When we saw the above photo, we smiled at how well it captures what is attractive about cowboys. Our smiles faded when we learned these men were supporting a rancher who thought he was justified in running his cattle on federal land without paying a fee or obeying the law.

David Archer warns, in The Long Thaw, that humans are putting carbon dioxide into the air that could stay there for centuries, a quarter of it lasting essentially forever.

Globally, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of human-caused warming that’s due to increases in the gas carbon dioxide. Most of this comes indirectly, such as from cutting down forests to create pastures and growing feed for cattle. Carbon dioxide is also released during the manufacture of the fertilizers and pesticides that drench the crops used to feed confined cows. Burning fossil fuels to power farm machinery, and to transport cows, meat, feed, water, and cow waste, also creates this gas.

Around 37% of anthropogenic methane comes from livestock, mostly from cows.  Methane is produced when cow manure breaks down. It also comes from cow burps (and a bit from cow farts).

Finally, cows’ manure releases the warming gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Your dentist may have offered you nitrous oxide before a painful procedure. “Laughing gas” induces a feeling of euphoria and brings on a dreamy mental state. Molecule for molecule, nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it has an impressive atmospheric lifetime of around 120 years. The livestock sector is responsible for 65 percent of the anthropogenic nitrous oxide in the air, most of which comes from the breakdown of cow manure.

At 92 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent relative humidity, cows start dying. Stressed cows need higher-energy-value feed and much more water. Both feed and water are usually in short supply when the heat coincides with drought, as is often the case.

When you fly above the Ogallala, you see that the land below you is covered with giant green polka dots formed by irrigation systems that tap into the aquifer and pivot from a central point. The sprinkler arms are half a mile long, reaching from the pivot point to the edges of one-square-mile sections of land. Revolving over the field like the hands of gigantic clocks, the units cost $180,000 each.

Ogalla Aquifer. Management of this invaluable resource is inconsistent, complex, and scattershot. Decades of withdrawals plus three years of drought have greatly reduced the amount of water that can be pumped from the southern two-thirds. Large parts of southern Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and northwest Texas are already in crisis, and smart farmers are switching from corn to sorghum and cotton in an effort to make the water last longer. Texans can pump all the water they want from beneath their land. Although Texas pioneered the first legal mechanisms to protect mineral owners from having their oil poached by neighbors, the state steadfastly clings to a nineteenth-century view of water allocation. Until recently, billionaire T. Boone Pickens’s Mesa Water company owned the groundwater rights to more than two hundred thousand acres in Roberts County in the north Texas Panhandle. Those rights made Pickens the largest private water owner in the nation. Pickens tried unsuccessfully to sell his water to distant cities like Dallas and San Antonio. To get the necessary eminent domain to run a pipeline and power lines, he created his own town, a town with only two eligible voters. But after a decade of playing footsie with distant cities, he finally sold for less profit than he’d hoped for, to an outfit that will market the water to desperate cities nearby in the Panhandle.  In researching this chapter, we stumbled across a disturbing correlation. We noticed a remarkable similarity between a map showing where concentrated cow-feeding operations are densest and maps of the Ogallala. The entire surface above the precious aquifer is dotted with polluting cattle feedlots (Food & Water Watch. 2007. Factory Farm Map.

“Every second, North America’s largest river carries another dump truck’s load of topsoil to the Caribbean,” writes David R. Montgomery, the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a geomorphologist. He argues convincingly that we are skinning America and warns that we could be undoing the very ground that made us a wealthy nation. More than half of America’s cropland has a slope of at least 2 percent and is thus vulnerable to water erosion when it is plowed ( “Dirt: the erosion of civilization).

There are many ways to conserve soil, including cover crops, buffer zones alongside waterways, contour plowing, crop rotation, no-till planting, mulching, and terracing. Congress occasionally passes a law to reward conservation that enjoys a fleeting success. From 1985 until 1997, because of the “highly erodible land conservation” rules in the 1985 Food Security Act, soil erosion was reduced by 40%. But in 1996, under pressure from Big Ag, Congress greatly weakened those provisions. They did so because soil conservation techniques take marginal land out of production, preventing farmers from maximizing their current income. Because of federal subsidies and the mandated use of ethanol, twenty-five million additional acres have been plowed in the United States since 2007.  At the same time, the Midwest was hit with high-intensity, high-volume rainstorms. The value of the soil washed away was surely greater than the value of the extra grain grown.

Let’s look at what’s happening to Iowa’s dirt. Over the last 150 years, Iowa has lost half its topsoil. Iowa State University scientists working on the Iowa Daily Erosion Project say erosion is worsening and that much more soil is being lost than is acknowledged in the official estimates of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  In 2007, more than ten million acres of Iowa farmland eroded faster than the NRCS’s so-called “sustainable” level of five tons per acre per year. Six million acres lost soil at twice the sustainable rate (Cox, C., et al. 2011. Losing Ground, Environmental working group, executive summary)

Sadly, the regions in Iowa with the most fertile soil tend to be those where the highest percentage of farmland is leased. In north central and northwest Iowa, as much as 70% of the acreage is farmed by someone who doesn’t own it.

In 2003, a small group of ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists met to see whether they could find common ground. Exhausted by decades of conflict and litigation, they hoped to find a way to end the acrimony. To their surprise, they discovered that during those years of warfare, each had come to have a greater appreciation of the other’s point of view. The ranchers had almost all drifted into rotational grazing and other holistic practices. The environmentalists, after watching species after species disappear despite their lawsuits, kept encountering small ranchers who were voluntarily managing for biodiversity.

After laying out goals and pledges, they concluded, “with the grace of good fortune, the West may finally create what Wallace Stegner called ‘a society to match its scenery.’” Over time, more and more ranchers found that the Coalition’s “radical center” offered them the home they had been seeking. Membership swelled, joint projects were embarked upon, books were published, and a high-energy annual conference was organized. However, when they tried to expand to the larger ranches, the huge spreads that shuffle millions of cows into huge feedlots each year, they found zero interest. “It was like hitting a brick wall,” Arturo Sandoval, board chair of Quivira, told us. “The corporations and big city businessmen who own the giant ranches just don’t have the same feel for the land that the smaller guys do.

Another way to improve soil is to mix charcoal into it, if the charcoal is made in a sustainable way, for example from waste materials. Charcoal is basically wood and other vegetation that has been heated in a contained place without oxygen. This drives out moisture and chemicals that vaporize. When used to improve soil, charcoal is called “biochar” or “terra preta.” Earthworms help mix it into soil. Biochar sequesters carbon for a very long time, and so might help with climate disruption. Properly employed, it can be a powerful soil builder. In the 1950s, the distinguished Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek discovered that indigenous peoples along the Amazon had used terra preta to build rich topsoil six feet deep in places where there had previously been only the very thin topsoil characteristic of the rain forest.58 This is not only of historical interest. Sombroek’s findings have stood the test of hard science and worked their way into modern agriculture and popular culture. Terra preta is now being used in many parts of the world to enhance impoverished soil.59

Plowing land and leaving it bare part of the year causes carbon to oxidize and float up into the air. In the Corn Belt, we’ve already lost nearly half of the carbon and nitrogen once in the soil.61

The barrier to large-scale composting is this: Most cows are now crowded together in giant confined-feeding operations, so the farmland around them can’t absorb all the compost they produce. And it’s too expensive to truck compost very far from where it is produced.

Because cows don’t like to eat plants located close to their poop, the pasture area available for grazing quickly shrinks if pats aren’t cleaned up. But the same mess that repels cows can attract dung beetles from ten miles away. Dung beetles that specialize in cow poop so love the smell that they may hover near a cow’s tail just hoping for a treat. When rewarded with a splat, they dive in while it’s still warm. Although they prefer it fresh and stinky, dung beetles will burrow into hard dung that earthworms shun. They eat dung, squeeze water

They bury the ball in soil and either eat it later or use it to incubate one of their eggs. After a month or so the beetles leave a patch and worms move in, filling tunnels with their castings. If cow pies just sit on the surface and dry out, they lose most of their nitrogen to the air. By working dung into the soil, beetles improve its texture and recycle nitrogen and other nutrients needed to grow lush grass and forbs for cows to eat. Runoff is reduced because water and roots can penetrate better. As a toss-in benefit, the beetles kill the larva of certain flies that plague cows (and farmers), and they even reduce bovine gastrointestinal parasites by eating parasite eggs before they can turn into larva and infect other cows. It’s estimated that dung beetles currently save United States cattlemen about $400 million a year in clean-up costs.74 Ancient Egyptians were deeply intrigued by scarabs, a type of dung beetle. They saw in scarabs a microcosm of the cycle of life, the daily rebirth of the sun, and the eternal nature of the human soul. You couldn’t walk a block in ancient Egypt without encountering a dung beetle image in an amulet, adornment, seal, carving, or painting.

Dung beetles co-evolved with cows in Europe and Africa, and they come in eight thousand varieties. Hawaii and Australia were two places not blessed with them, so cattle ranchers had to import them. It worked beautifully; the imported beetles cleaned up the messes from the imported cows. Thanks to dung beetles, it’s now once again legal, in parts of Australia, to dine at an outdoor café that’s not protected by screens. You can find a type of dung beetle that will tolerate just about everything, including heat, drought, and cold. Some beetles work at night, some during the day. Different species of dung beetles will work cooperatively in the same pasture. There’s a growing body of scientific literature on how to match dung beetles to particular environments; getting the mix right is crucial for optimum results. Unfortunately, the sheer number of cows crowded into factory farms creates terrible working conditions for the beetles. The pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides that saturate large cow operations are harmful to beetles. For example, although beetles can greatly reduce the number of bovine gastrointestinal parasites, beetles are killed by medicines fed cows to kill the parasites, because the active part of the medicine passes through cows intact. Residual antibiotics in cow poop kill off good bacteria on which dung beetles depend. In short, it seems unlikely that even dung beetles can clean up the factory farm mess.

Cows have an astonishing ability the brightest chemists haven’t been able to replicate in the lab: They can convert low-value cellulose and carbohydrates (grass and by-products) into massive amounts of high-quality, delicious protein (milk and meat). Cows manufacture complete protein with all nine amino acids people require to thrive. To accomplish this bio-alchemy, a cow spends six to seven hours a day eating and another eight hours chewing cud—a fifteen-hour day, seven days a week. And a cow works for just room and board, with a bleak retirement plan. This is the drill: Ferdinand wraps his three-pound tongue around vegetation and pulls it into his mouth. He swallows the greens without much chewing. A cow has just one stomach, with four compartments. When the first and largest compartment, the rumen, is full, Ferdinand burps “cud” back into his mouth. He grinds the cud between his powerful molars and the toothless but tough palate on the top of his mouth. (Gary Larson is the world’s best cow cartoonist, but only

The rumen is a universe unto itself, teeming with hundreds of species of bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. Its lining looks like tufted carpet. The late Lynn Margulis, a distinguished biologist, once described a cow as “a forty-gallon fermentation tank on four legs.”1 The microbes cooperate and compete among themselves, using enzymes to ferment the mashed vegetation and to create protein, B and C vitamins, and volatile fatty acids. The rumen enables a cow to extract energy from plant matter like stems, seed coats, and seed shells that most other animals can’t eat.

The second part of Ferdinand’s stomach is his reticulum, which has a lining that resembles a honeycomb. Cows aren’t picky eaters, so the reticulum acts like a trap. People poking around inside dead cows find rocks and bits of plastic and metal in a reticulum. “Hardware disease,” as it’s called, causes problems if metal punctures the stomach wall. To prevent this, a finger-sized rod ringed with magnets can be inserted into a cow’s stomach where it attracts swallowed metal. The magnet stays in the cow all the way to the slaughterhouse. Of course, magnets won’t attract glass, plastic, or aluminum. When people toss trash out of their car windows, the trash sometimes ends up in fields, gets shredded by harvesting machines, mixed in with hay and silage, and is eaten by cows.

The third part of a cow stomach, the omasum, has folds that remind some people of the pages of a book. It filters and resorbs water. Finally, food gets to the part of the cow’s stomach that most resembles a human stomach, the abomasum, where acid and enzymes digest protein. After the stomach comes the intestine. Unfurled, it could stretch to the height of a sixteen-story building. Cows are amazing. They will always have a role to play on land that provides good pasture yet is unsuitable for growing crops.

Grandma’s and Grandpa’s cows were benign beasts that transformed grass into protein, fertilized their own pastures, and provided agricultural muscle. Today’s cows are more like energy-sucking black holes. How much energy they require depends on what you include in your calculations.

Our pets—especially our dogs—also eat large quantities of beef. There has been little rigorous investigation of the carbon paw prints of commercial pet food. Robert and Brenda Vale, authors of Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, calculate that an average-sized dog eats 3.17 ounces of meat a day. Over a year, that’s about seventy-two pounds of meat—only marginally less than the average person, globally.10 A cooperative effort between the Nutro Company and the University of Illinois affirmed that dogs and cats require particular nutrients, not particular ingredients, so that plant protein, and protein from lower-order animals or even single-cell organisms, can be substituted for red meat in cats’ and dogs’ diets.11 Furthermore, an estimated 57% of American cats and 53% of dogs are overweight. Twenty-seven percent of cats and 17 percent of dogs aren’t just overweight but are obese12—as are nearly 36 percent of their owners.13 The family can all go on a diet together.

Lured by lucrative federal subsidies, farmers in the United States planted 97.4 million acres of corn in 2013.  These monoculture crops weren’t headed for your dinner plate; the bulk of the crop is used to fatten cows or to make ethanol.  A popular crop is a type of field corn called “number 2 yellow dent corn,” because each kernel has a little dent on both sides. Field corn can chip a human tooth—it’s that tough. To consume it, humans must grind it into meal or treat it with lye to remove the thick outer skin. The sweet corn you buy as corn on the cob has a very thin skin around each kernel.

Traces of these drugs end up in meat, milk, and the environment. Using antibiotics in this way also encourages the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The Haber-Bosch process now produces one hundred million tons of nitrogen fertilizer every year. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer revolutionized agriculture, winning a temporary respite in Malthus’s race between human population growth and food limits. The world’s human population today might be a third smaller but for the extra food made possible by this fertilizer.

The crop most suited to utilize this fertilizer was nitrogen-hungry hybrid corn.

If two genetically distinct lines of corn are bred, for reasons still not fully understood “hybrid vigor” (heterosis) increases yield. Hybrid corn has stalks that are less likely to break below the ear, and hybrid plants conveniently all mature at about the same time, making it easier to use large harvesting machines. In the 1940s and 1950s, yields of grains began to soar, from a bit over 20 bushels per acre in the early 1900s to over 155 bushels in 2013.  Wow. Hybrid seed is patentable. If a farmer tries to grow a new crop from the seeds of the previous year’s hybrid plants, she not only will see a big reduction in yield but also will be breaking her contract with the seed company. So she needs to buy seed year after year.

Other downsides to hybrid corn are that it requires huge amounts of fertilizer, and the loss of biodiversity can increase vulnerability to corn diseases, such as happened during the outbreak of Corn Leaf Blight Race T, a fungal disease, in 1970.

These new corn and wheat seeds—and the attendant use of fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery, irrigation, and larger-scale farms—were spread around the world by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Ford Foundation pitched in later, helping to spread high-yielding rice and corn grains. The burst in food production came to be called the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution resulted in a cornucopia of corn. The abundant corn, in turn, made possible the rise of giant confined animal feeding operations.

In the nineteenth century, when the practice developed of moving cattle to railroad holding pens in Abilene, Kansas City, Dodge City, and elsewhere, cows faced a new challenge. Traveling by rail was hard on them. Even when they didn’t get sick or die en route, they inevitably lost much weight. So to prepare them for railroad shipment to distant slaughterhouses, the cows were penned for a few weeks and fattened on grain. By 1870, three hundred thousand head a year were passing through Abilene alone. In 1876, Gustavus Swift, a former farmer and butcher, pulled together the elements (feedlots, slaughterhouses, railroads, and refrigerated railcars) that transformed the beef industry. His key idea was to slaughter cows in the west (Chicago) and ship refrigerated meat instead of live cows (only two-thirds of a cow being edible). This allowed Swift to fatten the cattle for slaughter rather than fattening them to make the trip.

The final transformation took place under Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration. Butz was raised on a 160-acre farm in Indiana that was mostly self-sufficient. His family used a team of horses, not a tractor, and manure from livestock, not synthetic fertilizer. They grew all the animal feed they needed. After Butz left to attend Purdue University, a neighbor bought the Butz farm, and it grew in size to eight hundred acres. He purchased seed, fertilizer, pesticide, tractors, and feed—and yet made enough money to buy new cars, televisions, and vacations. The financial success of this approach to farming deeply influenced Butz’s vision of American agriculture.30

In the 1973 Farm Bill, the final element underpinning the modern industrial cattle business. Under this legislation, the government set a price for grain and guaranteed the purchase of anything the market didn’t buy. By removing most of the risk from planting, the legislation essentially guaranteed huge surpluses. To soak up the surplus grain, the USDA encouraged gigantic feedlots. Today corn comprises over 95% of all the feed grains produced in America, the others being sorghum, barley, and oats.31

Holsteins became the most popular dairy cows partly because of the breed’s ability to tolerate corn.

Vaclav Smil wrote  “The biomass of domesticated land animals, dominated by cattle, is now at least 20 times larger than the zoomass of all wild vertebrates.  If extraterrestrial visitors could get an instant census of mammalian biomass on the Earth in order to judge the importance of organisms simply by their abundance, they would conclude that life on the third solar planet is dominated by cattle.”

“Primary production”—all the solar energy captured by plants and algae—is the bottom link in every food chain. Smil has calculated that humans and our farm animals consume 40% of Earth’s net primary production. Only 60% remains to support all other life on the planet—not just the vertebrates but also the beetles, ants, worms, octopi, jellies, clams, sponges, lobsters, spiders, and so on. If the human population grows another 50%, and everyone starts to eat as much beef as Americans, we will wipe out much of the rest of the animal world.

In 2008 and 2011, global food prices spiked to record levels because of weather disruption, diversion of food crops to biofuels, and market jitters.46 From 2008 to 2014, Americans, comprising only 4.5% of the world’s population, grew 33 to 56% (depending on the year) of all corn, along with a disproportionate share of all wheat.47 Our Great Plains is now breadbasket to the world.48 For much of the first decade of the new millennium, the demand for corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans in many parts of the world greatly exceeded the available supply. As a result, food riots and political destabilization occurred in nations as disconnected as Mexico, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Food shortages helped trigger the Arab Spring. Researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute have correlated the dates of riots with rising prices of food. “Social disorder is contagious,” says physicist and systems scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam. “The more we see it happening elsewhere the more it becomes imaginable where one lives.”49

Today, 842 million people go to bed every night hungry, far more than before the Green Revolution.

At one time we were a nation of small farmers. Today, most Americans don’t have access to enough land to grow their own food, so they depend on distant farms to supply their supermarket. We recently read an old book, Pleasant Valley, about the restoration of a farm in Ohio. In this book, Louis Bromfield, a widely popular writer in the 1930s and 1940s (the time of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II), argues with passion that good soil and family farming are the most basic needs of a wealthy, healthy nation. He makes a compelling argument that an individual is only truly secure when he or she is able to grow enough food to feed a family in bad times. Seventy years ago, Bromfield and others worried about how much American soil we’d already lost and argued for techniques similar to the no-till farming now being rediscovered by the USDA.

Across America tens of thousands of ponds called lagoons dot the rural landscape. The word “lagoon” conjures up images of cerulean blue ponds ringed by reefs and palms. But the lagoons in rural America are nothing like the Blue Lagoon in which Brooke Shields frolicked. They are where farmers store animal sewage. Brimming with chemicals and disease organisms, these lagoons fester like open sores. They are typically man-made ponds rimmed by dikes of scraped-up dirt. Lagoons are seldom covered, but there are many variations: covered or uncovered, lined or unlined. Livestock’s untreated sewage is America’s least-regulated source of pollution. According to USDA and EPA estimates, concentrated livestock and poultry operations produce three times as much raw waste as do humans.2 And each ton of raw manure is up to 110 times more polluting (in terms of biochemical oxygen demand) than raw municipal sewage.3

On smaller farms with land enough to absorb their cows’ waste, lagoons can be managed so they aren’t a problem. (It takes only one or two cows to provide ample manure to fertilize an acre, an area about the size of a football field.) But on CAFO factory farms that have far more cows than acres, it’s often necessary to build multiple massive lagoons.

Cows are large, hungry animals. A lactating dairy cow needs about one hundred pounds of feed a day. Beef cattle are no slackers either. They produce more urine and feces, per pound of weight, than any other meat animals.5 After cows extract from their feed what they need to grow, walk around, produce milk, and hang out with other cows, there’s still a lot left over. Therefore, cows poop a lot. Maybe a dozen times a day. They go so often that there are popular contests called cow-pat bingo. Chalk lines divide a yard into maybe a thousand numbered squares, and a cow or two is put into the yard. People bet on which square will get the first splat.

If CAFO farmers just let manure pile up in barns and feedlots, they’d soon need ladders to get to their cows. So cow waste is scraped or washed out of dairy barns as slurry and piped into lagoons. From the lagoon, waste may go into a spray-field system and be splattered over nearby acreage. Or liquid is allowed to evaporate and every once in a while matter too solid to be sprayed is scraped out and put on fields, often resulting in a deposit of excessive nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium). The excess nutrients run off and pollute.

When you cram tens of thousands of cows together, as some CAFOs do, germs thrive. So antibiotics are given prophylactically and constantly. To maximize profits, the cows in a feedlot must be fed rich grain and are often given hormones. Feed grain must be grown elsewhere, nearly always with heavy applications of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and then transported to the CAFO. All this fertilizing and transporting requires tons of fossil fuel. Vast amounts of water must also be pumped in for drinking and cleaning up. Polluted water then has to go somewhere.

When you cram tens of thousands of cows together, as some CAFOs do, germs thrive. So antibiotics are given prophylactically and constantly. To maximize profits, the cows in a feedlot must be fed rich grain and are often given hormones. Feed grain must be grown elsewhere, nearly always with heavy applications of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and then transported to the CAFO. All this fertilizing and transporting requires tons of fossil fuel. Vast amounts of water must also be pumped in for drinking and cleaning up. Polluted water then has to go somewhere.

CAFOS are often initially welcomed by states as a source of anticipated income. When California imposed more stringent regulations on CAFOs, Idaho opened its arms wide to beef and dairy feedlots. Law after law was changed in Idaho to make polluters feel welcome.6 Not only were the Idaho nutrient management requirements very modest, but they were (and are) secret! Under Idaho state law, “the nutrient management plan, and all information generated by the beef cattle feeding operation as a result of such plan, shall be deemed to be trade secrets, production records or other proprietary information, shall be kept confidential and shall be exempt from disclosure.

Only a quarter of large dairies have enough land on which to spread manure and still comply with the 2003 Clean Water Act’s nutrient application standards for nitrogen. If a strict phosphorus-based standard is used, only 2% of large dairies are in compliance.11

Early in the twenty-first century, the EPA began requiring CAFOs that discharge waste into rivers, streams, or lakes to apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.  To get an NPDES permit, a farmer must comply with effluent limits and standards. Therefore, most big outfits should be packing up a lot of their manure and hauling it to fields, pastures, forests, or highway margins where it won’t exceed nitrogen and phosphorus limits. But raw manure is expensive to truck around, and farmers can’t economically haul it more than about six miles. Unfortunately, neighboring farms often have their own cows or prefer the convenience of commercial fertilizer, which doesn’t stink, contains consistent amounts of nutrients, and is easier to apply (although it costs more and doesn’t improve soil quality as does manure). Even accidental discharges are illegal under the NPDES. The penalty is a fine. The EPA has the right to prosecute and occasionally does.15 More often, the power is delegated to state agencies, which are unable to overcome the clout of the farm industry in state legislatures. An example is found in Iowa, a state with heavy runoff from factory farms. Iowa Citizens for Community Involvement, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Integrity Project petitioned the federal EPA to take over enforcement of water laws from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The EPA agreed that the farms needed permits, and it ordered the Iowa DNR to inspect thousands of farms over five years or hand over power to the EPA. It is a victory, of sorts, but few expect the Iowa DNR to find religion in the next few years, and at the end of the five years, it is uncertain that Congress will appropriate the money the EPA needs to do the job.16

Because we have stuffed staggering numbers of cows into factory farms, we Americans now live in a cow toilet. Pollutants in feedlots and lagoons rise into the air and travel long distances on the wind. They also sink into groundwater, where they go with the flow. Managing a feedlot is a balancing act between not keeping the land too dry or too wet. If it’s too dry, the wind kicks up noxious dust. If too wet, the stench and fly population balloon.

Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide go into the air at every stage of manure handling: while manure is on the ground or the barn floor, from lagoons, when manure is scraped into a pile and stored, while it’s applied to land, and while on a field. Forty to 60% of the nitrogen in cow food ends up in the air in the form of ammonia.18 A single cow’s daily burps include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and as much as a thousand liters of methane, carbon dioxide, and other warming gases. Multiply that times 93 million cows! Ammonia irritates the lungs of people and cows and makes it difficult to breathe. Over a quarter of factory-farm workers have respiratory problems.19 Volatilized ammonia can travel three hundred miles before settling down on land or water.20 The smog in much of Southern California contains tiny particles of ammonium nitrate, and the amount that comes from cows may be as great as that which comes from cars.21 As for hydrogen sulfide, Robbin Marks, author of the authoritative book Cesspools of Shame, notes that it “can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, diarrhea, hoarseness, sore throat, cough, chest tightness, nasal congestion, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, stress, mood alterations, sudden fatigue, headaches, nausea, sudden loss of consciousness, comas, seizures, and death.”22 Even at less dire concentrations, it stinks like rotten eggs.

Farts on fire.  some farts contain methane. (Almost half of humans, however, produce flatus containing no methane, because they lack a single-cell gut organism called archaea. Wondering whether you’re a producer? Now you know how to find out.)

Alarming amounts of pollutants from lagoons also get into water. Heavy rainfall, overloading, and breaks in earthen walls cause spills. Such breaches are frequent, and they flood untreated sewage into rivers and estuaries as well as into groundwater. In addition to nitrogen, phosphorus, and bacteria, cow waste often contains natural and synthetic hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and salts that can make water unusable for drinking or irrigation.

For centuries the greatest threat to humans from cows was tuberculosis. Cows and humans have been swapping tuberculosis (TB) bacteria since the Stone Age. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the strain usually associated with humans, and Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) is most often associated with cattle (and bison, elk, and deer). But cattle and humans can both get both forms. As recently as 1900, prior to the pasteurization of milk products, TB was second only to pneumonia as a cause of death in the United States. Today 5 to 10% of Americans still carry latent TB. Similarly, TB was once the most common disease in cattle here, but control measures have now made it rare, and Americans today seldom catch the cow form of the disease. M. bovis is amazingly adaptable, however, and can infect all warm-blooded vertebrates, making it hard to eradicate.

Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, mucus, and pus. Salmonella outbreaks connected to ground beef occur with depressing frequency.

Escherichia coli O157:H7 (sometimes called “hamburger E. coli”) is Shiga toxin–producing and causes over a third of E. coli infections. Infected cows aren’t much bothered by O157:H7, but swallowing just a few of these bacteria can sicken people. Diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, and urinary problems are typical symptoms. About 6 percent of victims get hemolytic uremic syndrome. In American children, O157:H7 is the most common cause of kidney infections. In extreme cases the germ causes bloody diarrhea and death. The USDA banned the sale of ground beef containing O157:H7 in 1994, but that hasn’t stopped it from being sold. (Here’s a shocker: If you catch a Shiga toxin strain of E. coli and take most kinds of antibiotics, the antibiotics might kill you. Ciprofloxacin, for example, kills the bacteria, but as they die the microbes can release a lethal amount of toxin.)

Because so much of a cow’s meat (about 40%) is left over after named cuts have been removed, the scraps are saved and ground up. Meat from hundreds or even thousands of cows may be contained in a single lot of ground beef.43 This mixing greatly increases a consumer’s chance of swallowing toxic bacteria, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or antibiotic residue. As of June 2013, one out of every 354 samples of raw ground beef the USDA had tested for E. coli O157:H7 were positive. (The testing program began in 1994.) Even more worrisome, one out of 118 was positive for one of six other types of non-O157 Shiga toxin–producing E. coli.

The mechanical tenderizing processes used by most beef producers allow cross-contamination to occur even in steaks. The CDC has attributed at least three E. coli outbreaks to this practice.47 To tenderize meat, a conveyor moves hunks of meat under a device with many vertical needles or blades. The device isn’t washed between injections, so any germs in one hunk of meat can be spread to many. All the big four beef packers (JBS Beef, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat, and National Beef Packing) have tenderizing machines. These corporations process 80 percent of all beef slaughtered in the United States.

Shoppers can’t tell if packaged meat has been mechanically tenderized just by looking at it, so consumer advocates have long begged for labels that reveal whether meat has been tenderized.

E coli O157:H7 has been found in spinach and lettuce irrigated with water downstream from cattle.54 Consumer Reports even found fecal contamination in “prewashed” salad greens. We were shocked to learn that pathogens such as O157:H7 can actually be sucked inside individual leaves of lettuce and spinach, where they can’t be washed off—and nobody cooks lettuce.57

The CDC estimates that in 2010 there were 82,040 infections and 11,478 deaths from MRSA.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest unearthed thirty-eight outbreaks from 1973 to 2009. Most were linked to dairy products and ground beef. Disturbingly, nearly half occurred in the last eleven of the thirty-eight years studied.62 MRSA is only one of the superbugs springing up in hospitals and communities. Diseases with strains resistant to one or more families of antibiotics now include anthrax, gonorrhea, strep infections, pneumonia, staph infections, meningitis, shigellosis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and urinary tract infections. Meet Acinetobacter baumannii, or MDRAB. Nicknamed “Iraqibacter” because of its prevalence in American troops sent there, some experts think it’s a bigger threat than MRSA.65 Then there’s Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bug found in hospital settings. Like MDRAB, it is resistant to virtually all of today’s antibiotics.

Although the CDC’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) surveys retail meat looking for multidrug-resistant  Campylobacter, Salmonella, Enterococcus,  E. col,i Staphylococcus aureus (all  are bacteria found in cow intestines), it doesn’t look for other pathogens that have become resistant. But it should. Consider Staphylococcus aureus, which infected Denis’s elbow. In 2011, The Translational Genomics Research Institute did the first nationwide survey to find out how pervasive Staphylococcus aureus is in ground beef, pork, and poultry. The researchers looked at 136 samples representing 80 brands from 26 grocery stores in 5 cities.66 About half of all samples were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, including 37 percent of the ground beef samples. One-third of the contaminated samples had a strain of Staphylococcus aureus resistant to three or more antimicrobials. Various strains displayed resistance to tetracycline, ampicillin, penicillin, erythromycin, fluoroquinolones, quinupristin/dalfopristin, oxacillin, daptomycin, and vancomycin.

Antibiotic Resistance.  Healthy animals in factory farms are fed 80% of all antibiotics sold for all purposes in America to improve feed efficiency, prophylactically guard against disease, and promote growth.  This threatens to spread antibiotic resistant to microbes humans are susceptible to.  If new antibiotics aren’t found, an infected scratch could kill someone.

We were surprised to learn that antibiotics even get into cows as a side effect of growing corn-derived ethanol. Dried distillers grain (DDG)—a low-starch, high-protein by-product of ethanol production—is a popular cow supplement at feedlots. The ethanol mash from which DDG is made is often contaminated with Lactobacilli, which thrive in the warm, moist, sugar-rich environment. The Lactobacilli compete with alcohol-producing yeast for the sugars, but they produce lactic acid, not ethanol. To combat the Lactobacilli, many ethanol producers add antibiotics, including penicillin and erythromycin, to their fermentation tanks. After the ethanol is removed, the tanks still hold distillers’ grains, which typically contain unregulated antibiotics. The Institute for Agricultural Trade and Policy argues persuasively that pharmaceutical companies selling antibiotics for this purpose are violating the law

You may have heard that a crisis looms ahead as more and more microbes become antibiotic resistant.  A major way this is happening is from the healthy animals in factory farms, who consume 80% of all antibiotics to gain more weight and prevent disease.  Growing corn to produce ethanol is one of many causes. It turns out that Dried Distillers Grain (DDG) is often contaminated with Lactobacilli which thrive in the ethanol mash it comes from. So ethanol producers add antibiotics like penicillin and erythromycin to the fermentation tanks, so when factory farm animals eat DDG, they are also eating illegal antibiotics (Olmstead 2012, Laskawy 2012, McKenna 2012).

Many respected organizations have called for a ban on giving healthy farm animals antibiotics that are also used in humans. They include the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the American Society for Microbiology, the American Public Health Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Pharmacists Association.73

Astonishingly, American dairy farmers and ranchers still don’t even have to get a prescription to buy antibiotics for cows—they can just pick up the drugs at a feed store. And American veterinarians can still prescribe “extra-label” uses of most approved veterinary drugs. This means a drug can be used for a different species, for a different indication, at a different dose, or administered differently than it was approved for.76 The FDA recently, and reluctantly, prohibited the extra-label use on farm animals of a class of antibiotics called cephalosporins (often given people who have strep throat, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and skin infections). This means cephalosporins can no longer be used to prevent cows from getting sick or given to cows in doses too low to cure disease.77 Unfortunately, the FDA only acted in response to a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council.78 According to NRDC: “Revealingly, in court documents, the agency said that if it started limiting antibiotics in animal feed, the livestock and pharmaceutical industries would protest so strongly it would consume too much of the agency’s time and resources, suggesting the agency is acting on its fear of the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries rather than doing what is best for human health.”79

U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter’s proposed Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act is much stricter and has been endorsed by 368 worthy organizations but by none of her Republican colleagues. The act would restrict the use of antibiotics for disease-prevention or to promote growth (they could still be given to sick animals). Under the proposed law, drug companies would need to demonstrate that giving animals existing or new antibiotics critical to humans would not lead to the development of resistance. As of September 2013—in an oblique tribute to the power of the agribusiness lobby— (an independent, for-profit service supported by ads) gives the act a 3 percent chance of getting through committee and a 1 percent chance of passing the House. If a radically different Congress is seated and the bill does pass, it would provide great benefits for humans. It might also force a dramatic improvement in the lives of cows, because factory farming would become impractical.84

The meat of former dairy cows, which constitutes roughly a fifth of our meat supply, is more likely than most beef to contain harmful antibiotic residues.91 The male calves of dairy cows often quickly become veal chops. But before they are killed, these calves may be given “waste milk” from cows on antibiotics, milk that can’t be sold for human consumption. They are also given medicated feed. Thus, veal is more likely than most beef to contain drug residues. In 2008, over 90 percent of beef contaminated by antibiotic residues came from plants processing dairy cows and veal. Common sense suggests such plants deserve stricter scrutiny, a 2010 Office of Inspector General report said. But the plants don’t get it. Recall of such tainted meat is voluntary, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) hasn’t requested any such recall since 1979.92

You can help to protect your family (and our society) from antibiotic residues and resistant bacteria by choosing organic food. A big advantage of products from organic cows is that they are free of antibiotics and do not put these drugs into the environment or you.  Beware labels that say “antibiotic-free” and “no antibiotic residues.” They mean only that the seller claims that the packaged beef contains no antibiotics. Even if this is true, antibiotic resistance develops back in the feedlot; a cow can be treated with antibiotics for years and treatment stopped during just the last couple weeks of its life. “No antibiotic growth promotants” means that the feedlot operator alleges that any antibiotics used were meant to prevent disease, not promote growth. But they are the same antibiotics, whatever the cattleman’s ostensible intent. The USDA does, however, approve labels such as, “never ever given antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.” But also look for a “USDA process verified” logo if you see such words. The logo means that the USDA has investigated the company’s process (not their product) and found the claim to be true.101

For over forty years a few small, farm-based digesters have been turning cow poop into methane. The methane is then burned to make electricity. Recently, much larger digesters have been put to work. The new systems now make more economic sense, because there is a market for alternative energy credits. Grant money is also available to support such efforts. To be clear: Digesters are more about controlling pollution than generating electricity. If every ounce of manure from 93 million cows were converted to biogas and used to generate electricity, it would produce less than 3 percent of the electricity Americans currently use (Cuellar, A.D., et al. 2008. Cow Power: the energy and emissions benefits of converting manure to biogas. Environmental Research Letters 3).

If a conventional dairy farmer wants to live a middle-class life today, Kevin says, he probably needs at least 350 cows. (Organic dairy farms can succeed with fewer cows.) One conventional farm they work with in Skagit County has 900 cows; an adjacent farm has 350. These two dairies are “scrape farms”—they scrape up manure rather than flushing it out with water. The cows eat mostly roughage (grass and corn stalks), not grain. It’s not feasible to pasture cows year-round here because it gets too cold and the pastures get muddy. The 900 cows we visited were in an unwalled barn with lots of air circulation.

The Maas brothers decided to set up their Farm Power plant right between the dairies, so the manure wouldn’t need to be trucked long distances to the digester, and the finished product could be piped at reasonable cost to nearby fields. With the farmers lined up, all Farm Power had to do was find $3 million to build a million-gallon tank in which to digest manure, a generator, and tanks to hold the stuff coming in and going out of the digester, which included up to 30% pre-consumer food waste—things like cow blood, dead chickens, and fish waste. Food that has not already been digested by animals contains more energy, allowing the anaerobic bacteria in the digester to pump out more methane. The facility can process forty to fifty thousand gallons of manure daily.

This generator and another, which Farm Power operates at Lynden, Washington, generate enough electricity to power a thousand homes. The liquid material coming out of the digester is a better fertilizer than raw manure because it contains far fewer pathogens and weed seeds and doesn’t stink as much. It first flows into a pit; from there, as a more stable manure slurry, it’s piped to nearby fields where it can be pumped through an irrigation nozzle or injected into the soil. The dry residue is turned into sanitary, comfy cow bedding. After the dry matter is squeezed through a screen, it’s loaded into trucks and hauled back to the farms. In the future, Farm Power plans to pasteurize the bedding product. Kevin scooped up some finished product stored at one of the nearby dairies. He held it out, inviting Denis to examine it. The bedding was still hot, and smelled like soil and hay.

Digesters don’t solve every environmental problem. Certain antibiotics in cow manure can kill off the fermenting and methanogenic bacteria that make the process possible. The heat in digesters probably doesn’t destroy most antibiotics. New research suggests some pathogenic and antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive anaerobic digestion. Installing a scrubber to remove sulfur dioxide from the digester gas wasn’t economically feasible for the Maas brothers, so they got a permit to emit some pollution. More nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium remain in the final product than is ideal. Carbon dioxide is also put in the air, and the trucks hauling waste and bedding burn fuel.

A mother’s milk is amazing: human or cow, it comes customized for her particular baby. A human baby’s gender is taken into account in terms of how much fat and protein are in a mother’s milk. And human milk is further adjusted according to whether times are good. For example, an affluent, well-nourished woman will provide more fat and protein in her milk for a male infant. When times are lean, a girl baby gets more fat.3 Why might this be? The Trivers-Willard hypotheses (proposed by Robert Trivers and Dan Willard) speculates that (especially in polygamous societies) if times are lean, the condition of a mother might be poorer. A son born in lean times may be unable to afford wives. But a poor daughter might still find a husband. So a girl would then be the better bet to provide grandchildren. This theory also applies to polygamous animal species.

A Holstein cow produces more milk if she has a female calf, and even more milk if she births two daughters in a row.5 Why is still a mystery. Cow milk differs from human milk: It’s richer and less sweet. Calves grow fast, so cow’s milk has more protein, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and chloride than is good for a human baby, and not enough unsaturated fats, essential fatty acids, iron, retinol, and vitamins E, C, and D. Even hormones have been shown to vary in animal milk according to the sex of the baby6

[T]he recommendation for three servings of milk per day is not justified and is likely to cause harm to some people. The primary justification is bone health and reduction of fractures. However, prospective studies and randomized trials have consistently shown no relation between milk intake and risk of fractures. On the other hand, many studies have shown a relation between high milk intake and risk of fatal or metastatic prostate cancer.7

In 1974 the Food and Drug Administration forced the milk industry to stop saying that everybody needed milk.

We were interested to learn that, ounce for ounce, whole milk has more calories than soda pop and that over half its calories come from sugar. Even a cup of nonfat milk has only seven fewer calories than a cup of Classic Coke.

New research suggests that heavy sugar consumption might be linked directly to cardiovascular disease and diabetes as well as to obesity.

A cardiovascular disease study that was prospective, covered twenty years, and involved over 31,000 adults found that sugar added to foods (such as to dairy desserts) significantly increased participants’ risk of dying of heart disease. When a participant got over 25 percent of his or her caloric intake from sugar, he or she was nearly three times more likely to die from heart disease than a participant who got under 10 percent of his or her calories from added sugar. (Most adults get over 10 percent of their caloric intake from added sugar.) Heart disease is what kills most Americans.9

The heavy consumption of saturated fat is also associated with weight gain.11 Over half the fat in whole milk is saturated, and we humans don’t need any saturated fat in our diets.

Most of the saturated fat Americans consume comes in the form of cheese and pizza.12 About a third of the sixty million gallons of milk our nine million dairy cows squirt out each day is drunk as milk, and before it goes to market most of that milk has some or all of the fat removed. That means there are vats and vats of leftover fat. To find profitable uses for the fat, the dairy industry pressures other industries—such as pizza makers and burger chains—to use more cheese. The campaign has been wildly successful: According to the USDA, even as the per capita consumption of fluid milk fell, per capita cheese consumption soared from just over 16 pounds a year in 1970 to 33.5 pounds in 2012. Another huge market for dairy fat is gourmet ice cream, the segment of the ice cream market now enjoying the greatest success. A 2012 survey found that premium (high-fat, low aeration) ice cream was the industry’s most popular product.13

Although saturated fat is generally bad for us, here’s a baffling fact: No link has yet been found between heart attacks and dairy foods high in saturated fat. Milk and cheese are extremely complex substances that scientists are a long way from fully understanding. For example, micronutrients like calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and the vitamin D that is added to milk might lower blood pressure, which might reduce the probability of a heart attack. Or maybe conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) somehow protects hearts and/or mitigates some other adverse health effects of high-fat dairy food. CLA, found in whole and low-fat milk, is just beginning to be understood. Higher amounts are found in grass-fed cows than in conventionally raised animals.16

Roughly 90 percent of Asian Americans and 75 percent of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Ashkenazi Jews are lactose intolerant. Among white northern Europeans, intolerance runs only around 2 to 7 percent.

People living in countries where adults seldom consume dairy products have lower rates of osteoporosis than Americans. What’s going on? Why do Chinese, Africans, and South Americans have stronger bones,32 while we in the United States consume three times as much calcium, yet have more brittle bones? While getting enough calcium is indeed important to bones, there are factors other than diet that matter much more: skin color (white and Asian women are at greatest risk); exercise (more is better); gender (women get more osteoporosis); longevity (older people have weaker bones); being small and thin; using cigarettes, alcohol, and prednisone (all weaken bones); genetics (if osteoporosis runs in your family); and whether you have rheumatoid disease. And here are some other suspected bone-weakening factors: lack of sleep, lack of exposure to sunlight, regular sunscreen use, not getting enough vitamin K or protein, taking too much vitamin A supplement in the form of retinol (instead of the beta-carotene form), taking some common prescription drugs, or having rheumatoid arthritis. Both obesity and losing a lot of weight can weaken bones. Still, an adequate amount of calcium is indeed important to bone health

Calcium intake is of special interest to postmenopausal women. Estrogen helps bones absorb calcium, and estrogen levels decline rapidly at menopause. Even women who consume a lot of calcium usually lose bone. Experts estimate half of American women will suffer a bone fracture after age fifty. Coauthor Gail is one of them, even though she took high doses of calcium/vitamin D supplement for years.

Cooking greens is a bother. So if you don’t want to consume dairy foods, why not just pop calcium pills? Because supplemental shortcuts don’t seem to work as well as getting calcium from food. Large studies have found no evidence that taking calcium and vitamin D supplements significantly reduces bone loss or hip fractures.35 In middle-aged and older women, a recent meta-analysis also found that taking calcium supplements might increase the risk of having a stroke.36 (Kidney stones are another risk of a high calcium and/or oxalate intake.) If you’re already getting around 1,000 mg per day of calcium through your food, there’s no need to take calcium supplements.

In 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force surprised many people when it announced its findings after a review of over one hundred studies: When post-menopausal women take a daily pill containing 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 400 international units of vitamin D, they did not experience fewer fractures but did increase their chances of getting kidney stones. Another consideration is a 2012 long-term study involving twenty-four thousand German men and women, which indicates that getting calcium from pills might increase the risk of a heart attack.37 Therefore, the Task Force “recommends against daily supplementation with 400 IU or less of vitamin D3 and 1,000 mg or less of calcium for the primary prevention of fractures in noninstitutionalized postmenopausal women.”

MAP hides inside white blood cells and thus is somewhat protected from the heat of pasteurization, even ultra-pasteurization.51 In 2007, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found that in nearly a quarter of dairy operations surveyed, at least 10 percent of the cows were infected with Johne’s. Compared to operations of five hundred or more cows, smaller operations with fewer than a hundred cows were half as likely to have infected cows in their herds.52 MAP is excreted in cow poop, can survive for a year in the environment, and from there it may get into milk, groundwater, tap water, and food crops.53 Studies have shown it can infect humans.

If you’re of an apocalyptic bent, here’s a scenario that will grab your attention. Two Stanford University researchers, Lawrence M. Wein and Yifan Liu, wrote an article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences contending that milk is an ideal transmitting agent for biological terrorism.57 (Wein summarized their findings in a New York Times op-ed.)58 The weapon: botulinum neurotoxin, the most toxic biological substance known. It blocks neuromuscular transmission and is appallingly easy to obtain and prepare for distribution.59 One of its trade names is Botox. Many Americans get injections of Botox to reduce facial wrinkles. Every year, six billion gallons of milk are pooled at various stages of collection and shipped around the country for rapid consumption. A terrorist could pour a few grams of botulinum toxin into a milk tank on one or more farms. The contaminated milk would be taken to a factory and poured into a raw-milk silo along with milk from other farms. From there it would flow into an even larger product stream. One-millionth of a gram of botulinum toxin can kill an adult; even less suffices to kill a child. This scenario holds the possibility of killing hundreds of thousands of people, Wein and Liu believe, most of them children. They argue that all milk trucks should be tested for botulinum before they unload into a silo, noting that trucks have to stop anyway for tests of antibiotic residue. Testing for all four types of the toxin that harm humans would raise the cost of a gallon of milk by less than one cent.

Wein and Liu’s article, which appeared in 2005—after the anthrax attacks of 2001—caused quite a stir. Some people complained that they were providing advice to terrorists. In the same issue of the Proceedings in which the article was published, Bruce Alberts, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, noted in an editorial that the information in the article was already freely available on the Web. He suggested that public discussion would help create greater alertness to an existing threat and acknowledged that there had been improvements in bioterrorism safeguards since 9/11. Furthermore, Alberts said, Wein and Liu may have underestimated how much of the botulism would be destroyed by newer pasteurization standards, a fact pointed out by other scientists.60 Alberts also noted, however, that these improvements in pasteurization, as well as other important FDA guidelines for protecting the milk supply, are voluntary. Not all milk producers have adopted them.61 Many people believe that such threats to our milk supply are remote, and that protecting against them is too expensive—another example of an overreaching nanny state. Others, including the authors, note that milk terrorism requires much less money and a far lower level of coordination, intelligence, and discipline than training jetliner pilots, simultaneously commandeering four transcontinental jetliners, and crashing those airplanes into specific buildings.

There is also a naturally occurring toxic substance in milk that’s now mostly of historical interest—tremetol. This poison is found in the white snakeroot plant. When eaten by cows, it gets into their milk, and when humans drink that milk it causes trembling, horrid intestinal pain, and vomiting. Abraham Lincoln’s mother and thousands of other settlers died of this “milk fever.” Although tremetol is not inactivated by pasteurization, the milk in a single carton today comes from so many different cows that any tremetol would be too diluted to be dangerous. The risk of milk fever today is exceedingly slight.

In men, too much estrogen can mess with male reproductive systems and cause breasts to grow. Sperm banks in Israel are finding it harder to get healthy sperm; only 1 percent of would-be donors at that country’s largest sperm bank make the grade. The cause of this alarming decline in fertility is a mystery. It’s thought by some scientists that aggressive dairy farming methods lie behind the drop.63 Excessive estrogen might mean an increased risk of ovarian cancer in women, prostate and testicular cancer in men, and breast cancer in both. In countries where fewer dairy products are consumed, young men have much less testicular cancer. The Harvard School of Public Health advises: “Because of unresolved concerns about the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, it may be prudent to avoid higher intakes of dairy products.” Hormones reside in fat; if you choose to lower your level of estrogen exposure, pick low-fat or nonfat dairy products.

Hormones are another invisible substance in milk. They are found in all milk, be it bovine or human. Our bodies, and cows’ bodies, are regulated by an intricate symphony of hormones essential to our growth, sexual maturation, and health. A master gland, the pituitary, conducts the hormone production of other glands. What we ingest can throw this system out of tune. Toxicologists’ mantra has long been, “The dose makes the poison.” Ordinarily, the higher the dose, the greater the response—hence all those tests stuffing lab rats with huge amounts of food additives. But this axiom is not true of hormones, nor of chemicals that interfere with, or mimic, hormones. Scientists cannot predict the effect of low doses of hormones from effects seen when a high dose is given. Estrogen is one key hormone. All animals with backbones make estrogen. In women, estrogen regulates estrus cycles and the development of breasts and other secondary sexual characteristics. In males, it’s important for the maturation of sperm. Without estrogen, neither cows nor human females could make milk. A milk cow is usually “freshened” (bred) about once a year. Unlike Grandma’s cow, she keeps lactating in the last half of her pregnancy.

Milk estrogen. Cows produce about thirty-three times more natural estrogen when they are pregnant than they do when they are not pregnant, which means there’s a great deal of estrogen in the cow milk you drink.  As a cow’s pregnancy advances, the estrogen content of her milk rises. Americans drink so much milk that it accounts for 60–80 percent of the estrogen and progesterone (another female sex hormone) that we take into our bodies. Most of the rest comes from other animal products. (Plant phytoestrogens sometimes act like estrogen and sometimes like an antagonist to it.)

In men, too much estrogen can mess with male reproductive systems and cause breasts to grow. Sperm banks in Israel are finding it harder to get healthy sperm; only 1 percent of would-be donors at that country’s largest sperm bank make the grade. The cause of this alarming decline in fertility is a mystery. It’s thought by some scientists that aggressive dairy farming methods lie behind the drop.63 Excessive estrogen might mean an increased risk of ovarian cancer in women, prostate and testicular cancer in men, and breast cancer in both. In countries where fewer dairy products are consumed, young men have much less testicular cancer. The Harvard School of Public Health advises: “Because of unresolved concerns about the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, it may be prudent to avoid higher intakes of dairy products.” Hormones reside in fat; if you choose to lower your level of estrogen exposure, pick low-fat or nonfat dairy products.

The dairy lobby leaned on states to make it illegal to label milk “rBGH-Free” or “rBST-Free.” But in the fall of 2010, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Ohio could no longer ban such labels. The court also found that rBST-produced milk is different in composition from regular milk because it contains more pus, spoils more quickly, and is lower in nutritional quality at some points in the cow’s lactation cycle.69 Concerns about the effect of rBST on the health of both humans and cows have led the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada to ban its use. But the United States’ National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and the EPA all maintain that milk produced with growth hormones is safe for human consumption. The bad effects of rBST on cows are the main reason its use has been banned in most of the industrialized world. It would be a kindness to cows to ban its use in the United States as well.

The hormones produced by animals’ bodies have Frankenstein first cousins: manufactured chemicals that act like, or mess up the action of, natural hormones. Called “endocrine disruptors,” they can be found in plastics, cosmetics, toys, pesticides, herbicides, linings of metal food cans, flame retardants, and many other products. They escape from products, get into air and water, and hence into food and our bodies. Even human breast milk now contains endocrine disruptors. Women who breast-feed are generally horrified to learn that they will lower their own load of some endocrine disruptors by transferring them to their babies.75 (Breast-feeding is still strongly recommended because of its many other benefits.) Because the effects of low doses of hormones and endocrine disruptors can’t be predicted from studying high doses (as is done with other cancer-causing chemicals), the whole approach to evaluating their safety has to be different. High doses of them might occasionally be harmless, but tiny doses cause lasting effects!76 An endocrine disruptor can act alone or synergistically, in combination with other endocrine disruptors. They can have a big effect in minuscule amounts—often not noticeable until many years after exposure. This makes them devilishly hard to understand. How do endocrine disruptors get into cows? Most of them probably come from cow feed. They accumulate in cows’ fat.77 Pesticides that are known to be or are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, and which are applied to crops used to feed cows, include the five leading herbicides applied to corn and soy in the United States: atrazine; glyphosate; 2,4-D; acetochlor; and metolachlor.78 (Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use these chemicals, so the risk is almost eliminated in organic dairy and beef products.)

Another endocrine disruptor is perchlorate. Perchlorate is very harmful to thyroid glands, which play a key role in growing brains. In the spring of 2009, the CDC found perchlorate in all the major brands of infant formula sold in the United States. Perchlorate is in rocket fuel, and it gets into the environment during rocket and missile tests. Perchlorates are also used in the carpet industry, explosives, and a variety of industrial processes. Perchlorate has contaminated the water supply in over half the states and thus gotten into cows and human babies. Tainted infant formula powder mixed with tainted water, the CDC warns, could constitute an unsafe dose for a baby.79 A study of female rats found that when they were exposed to the levels of perchlorate found in our environment, the rats’ thyroid glands and reproductive systems were affected.80 Dioxins are yet another type of endocrine disruptor. They occur naturally but are also released by fires and industrial activities. Dioxins can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic mutations, and thyroid, reproductive, and immune system disorders. According to the World Health Organization, over 90 percent of humans’ dioxin exposure comes from nonorganic meat, fish and shellfish, and dairy foods.81 In their groundbreaking Our Stolen Future (1997), Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and Pete Myers presented an overview of some probable side effects of this chemical storm of endocrine disruptors: a dramatic drop in male sperm counts in parts of the world over the last two generations, defective sexual organs, lower IQs, behavioral abnormalities in children, more cancers, and gender-ambiguous wildlife. An individual’s exposure to endocrine disruptors at critical times can affect multiple generations, probably because of epigenetic changes (particular genes being turned on or off). To be clear, something you eat or drink before conceiving a baby or while pregnant or nursing might, many years later, affect the health of your great-grandchild. Think about that. This warning applies to future fathers as well as to mothers.82 Endocrine disruptors can sometimes cause delayed reproductive maturation in boys.83 In girls, some scientists think endocrine disruptors help trigger the too-early development of breasts and pubic hair and the onset of menstrual periods. American girls today get their periods, on average, several months to a year earlier than they did forty years ago, and they develop breasts a year or two earlier. At age eight, roughly 18 percent of white, 43 percent of black non-Hispanic, and 31 percent of Hispanic girls in the United States have entered puberty.84

What’s in beef that could cause so much harm? There appear to be many parts to the answer. Prime suspects are the saturated fat and the heme iron in red meat. Heme iron, found in animal proteins, is believed to be inflammatory.18 The heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that form on the surface of red meat cooked at high temperatures may cause colon cancer in people with certain genes.19 And (in mice at least) diets like the Atkins diet that are high in protein from red meat, and low in carbs, can promote hardening of the arteries.20 Processed beef (such as that in hot dogs and cold cuts) contains nitrates and nitrites (and sometimes nitrosamines) that can lead to cancer. Nitrates can also cause hardening of arteries. There’s more salt in processed meats, too, and salt raises some people’s blood pressure.21 A new theory is that a substance abundant in red meat, carnitine, is eaten by particular gut bacteria and turned into something nasty, a chemical called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide). TMAO makes it harder for the body to excrete cholesterol and easier for cholesterol to bind to artery walls. The higher your blood levels of TMAO, the more likely you are to have a heart attack. In fact, TMAO levels predict your risk of heart attack better than cholesterol levels, although they are rarely tested.

In 2014 the farm bill was passed with a price tag of over $956 billion the next 10 years. It eliminates direct payments, substituting additional subsidized crop insurance for corn and soy producers, insurance heavily subsidized by taxpayers.   CITATION 9: The Des Moines Register said that commodity groups did not fight elimination of direct payments because the crop-insurance program was even more generous.

Editorial. February 5, 2014. Farm Bill sends our country in wrong direction. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and also Globe Gazette).

Farmers are not the ones who benefit from record profits in corn, it’s the companies they buy from – suppliers of agrochemicals (Bayer, Syngenta, BASF), farm equipment (Deere), fertilizer (Mosaic), pesticides, and patented seeds.  Also the exporters: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Zen Noh, who control 80% of corn exports.  Just 4 companies control 60% of terminal grain facilities, and just 4 control meatpacking (JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing).


This is why Iowa insists it remains first in the nation to force candidates to pledge to continue to subsidize corn. Iowa farmers got $8.7 in subsidies between 1996 and 2001, even though they didn’t conserve soil and water as required.  Those who were fined by the federal government appealed to county commities who restored 97% of the money

CITATION 14 John McCormick et al., April 20, 2002. Farmers’ penalties rarely stick. Des Moins Register.

























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One Response to Because we’ve stuffed staggering numbers of cows on factory farms we live in a cow toilet

  1. bobby says:

    Big dietary iron problem today is the iron fortification added to all cereal products. Meat heme iron is relatively minor.

    The vegan anti-dairy propaganda is almost all nonsense and cooked stats. Estrogens in milk are opposed by progesterone. Dairy consumption unequivocally linked to better health outcomes across populations. It’s a cleaner food source than even grains and potatoes because the cow does so much to remove toxins.

    Saturated fat is health neutral. It’s just calories. The health risks from fat come from unsaturated fats like vegetable oils, which interfere with mitochondrial metabolism. Butter and milk are good to the extent they displace soy and canola oil.