Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's what's for dinner...

And providing it is not easy. But how did out the beef segment of our food system arise?  Sometimes a brief refresher course can be helpful.
The industrial and agricultural revolutions changed the cow's existence from four-legged co-worker to so much beef "on the hoof." Innovations like improved plows and, eventually, tractors made animal muscle less necessary for farm work. Meanwhile, the growth of huge cities vastly increased the demand for meat. With this appetite in mind, pioneering British agriculturalist Robert Bakewell developed new feeding and breeding methods at the end of the 18th century to raise tanklike "Dishley longhorns." These bovine behemoths, Rimas and Fraser explain, were not really suitable for milk production or field labor but amazing for sheer beef poundage. While Bakewell's ideas did not take hold immediately, his writings were highly influential for 19th-century British beef farmers as they ramped up production to feed a hungry empire (whose very symbol was the beef roast). 
As our beef cattle grew bulkier, our approach to slaughtering these cattle became less intimate. Before the modern era, cattle were generally killed by the very butcher who would sell you your meat. Centralized slaughterhouses emerged first in post-revolutionary France. In 1807, Napoleon himself ordered four central slaughterhouses built to get the messy business out of Paris' streets. Not only was the act of slaughter consolidated in (or at the outskirts of) large cities, but it was also concealed in plain sight, with purposely forgettable architecture. It became easier and easier to avoid reflecting on how many animals need to be killed in order to feed a metropolis. [More of a concise history with good book recommendations on our beef industry]

Lost in the anthropomorphizing of food animals and nostalgia for imagined past food practices is the fact that our industrial food system arose for good reasons of supply and safety. Butchers are disappearing because shoppers choose shrink-wrapped meat to save time, not because of any animosity toward butchers.

Above all the sheer size of our food systems in the US is too often ignored when reformers propose alternative systems. They need to do the math, and then figure out what happens when you scale up to reach those enormous quantities.

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