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Take your @steak_umm and shove it: A proposed course of study for “socially-responsible” faux-woke frozen meat brand accounts about the social irresponsibility of the industry that pays them.
Thesis: Beef is among the most socially damaging and irresponsible products in American life. It is catastrophic for the environment, workers, and animals. It has been and continues to be a vital engine of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and reactionary politics.
Cattle have always been a key instrument of North American settler colonialism. Livestock introduced by European settlers disrupted indigenous ecosystems, native land management and agriculture, and transmitted infectious illness.
White settlers cleared forest to make room for pasture, allowed their animals to storm through and uproot the careful polycultures maintained by native peoples up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and issued violent reprisals if those peoples disturbed their animal “property.”
As white settlers penetrated into the interior of the continent they brought their livestock, cattle included, repeating the same process of ecological devastation and displacement at each step, eviscerating native lifeways, societies, and ecosystems.
Settlers producing and exporting meat from lands in Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys meant Southern plantations could dedicate more land to slave-farmed cotton. Similarly, by importing meat, slavers could use food provision (and deprivation) as a technology of social control.
West of the Mississippi the land was far more arid and less suited to English style pasturage and grain agriculture. And, in the early 19th century, much of it was controlled by formidable military adversaries, the Comanche most of all.
The Comanche were dominant from Texas to Kansas and maintained their power through masterful horse riding, strategic and tactical acumen, and control over the vast herds of Bison that traversed the arid grasslands of their territory.
Settlers, as well as some politicians and investors, saw a doubled opportunity: by systematically wiping out the region’s 60 million Bison they could undercut the resources native communities depended upon and, at once, open up vast regions to cattle ranching.
Cattle and armed cattlemen would be the spear-tip of settler colonialism on the high plains: they moved in advance of US military forces to establish supply lines and depots, to attack native peoples, and to provoke armed conflicts that would guarantee US military responses.
This strategy was devastating for both native peoples and the ecology of the high plains, driving Bison to the verge of extinction and sparking a series of military conflicts that ultimately dispossessed tribes from millions of acres of land.
In place of the bison, cattle (over)grazed those arid grasslands and were driven to railheads and transported to processing hubs east of the Mississippi and, by mid-century, increasingly in Chicago.
Initially, cattle drives were long, sometimes spanning hundreds of miles, but the extension of the rail network and the invention of cheap barbed wire spelled doom for the open “common” range, as millions of acres were parceled into fenced real property.
By the end of the 19th century, cattle were grazed on grass in the high plains, transported by rail to grain finishing farms near Chicago, and then slaughtered by the millions in Chicago’s Union Stockyards.
Meat barons, then as now, were a ruthless lot. They prioritized breakneck slaughter above safety for workers and consumers, and, by 1900, American meatpackers had an international reputation for dodgy meats and a domestic reputation for being plutocratic monopolists.
The intolerable conditions in the Union Stockyards made fertile territory for labor activism, and slaughterhouses were on the frontline of unionization efforts. Those movements all correctly identified Big Beef barons as grossly exploitative, craven capitalists.
Ranchers, rail-barons, and meatpackers backed nakedly reactionary capitalism, brutal and unfettered. Meatpackers wanted no workplace or labor regulations. They despised unions. And they peddled racism to fracture working-class solidarity and guarantee low wages.
Ranchers, by contrast, wanted access to government-owned lands and water--they saw it as their entitlement--and they immediately rejected any government policy that would restrict how they used their property or accessed government and communal resources.
Then as now, ranchers articulated an "anti-statism" rooted mostly in having unfettered access to common resources without the responsibility to look out for the common good.
Naked reactionary capitalism was, of course, neither economically nor ecologically sustainable. Between 1920 and 1935, the grain-beef nexus sustained a series of body blows: agricultural prices collapsed and then drought and overgrazing generated an ecological catastrophe.
Even as the economic and ecological crises deepened, cattlemen initially rejected the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act because it would have strictly limited production as a condition to access subsidies and price parity.
Even after they accepted the program out of economic necessity, meatpackers and ranchers tried to undercut parts of the Roosevelt Administration’s farm policy that promoted conservation and social justice (such as Soil Conservation Service and Farm Security Administration).
But they learned to love the subsidies. Subsidies helped keep corn and other feed grains incredibly cheap. Despite their early denunciations of the New Deal as socialist, Big Beef still depends on subsidized grain to fatten their cattle and keep beef prices for consumers low.
Cattlemen, packers, and beef barons also helped push for “agricultural exemptions” in New Deal legislation. Farmworkers, including ranch-hands, were excluded from social security and labor rights, and agricultural commodities were exempted from the 1938 Motor Carrier Act.
The latter is a particularly significant, if understudied piece of legislation that profoundly shaped beef production and its continued corrosive reactionary politics, so we’ll focus on it for a bit.
Recall, in 1900, beef slaughter was centralized in Chicago. Beef sides were transported by refrigerated rail and usually sold in butcher shops. This meant that labor organizers had a powerful choke point to target: a single factory to organize and single state govt to pressure.
Now, the 1938 Motor Carrier Act guaranteed labor protections and shipping rates in overland freight shipping, but its authors carved out a substantial exemption for anything fitting within the broad definition of an “agricultural” commodity.
Any overland freight that carried an agricultural commodity could proceed without a state-established rate and the truck drivers who hauled it didn’t need to be unionized, receive fair pay, or have tolerable working hours and conditions.
But refrigerated trucks also meant packers and ranchers could decentralize slaughter and processing to avoid the Chicago chokepoint, cut butchers out entirely, and move cattle from grass to feedlot to slaughter facilities to supermarkets without using the unionized rail system.
After World War II, beef slaughter and processing rapidly decentralized, with slaughter facilities relocating to the high plains where cows were grazed and fattened. They were then processed into cuts, put under cellophane, and transported to chain grocery stores.
All of this trucking could be done, thanks to agricultural exemptions, without unionized labor or worker protections. Slaughter facilities could also be located in states where cattle interests could easily box out consumer and labor interests.
As a result, by 1970, beef slaughter and processing labor, which had once been heavily unionized, was mostly done in states with weak labor laws by non-unionized workers. Pay and workplace conditions deteriorated with it.
Indeed, by 1972, not only were the iconic Union Stockyards closed for business; they had actually been designated a historic landmark. Better pay and safety for meatpacking workers, once a prized victory of the American labor movement, was, quite literally, history.
The labor regulation dynamics since 1972 have only intensified these trends. Today, labor in all phases of beef production is mostly done by black and brown migrant laborers. And it is done under truly heinous conditions for paltry wages.
Meat slaughter and processing facilities have some of the highest rates of injury of any American workplaces. Workers also have heightened risk of PTSD from the near constant violence they witness.
To offset these appalling conditions and terrible pay, the meat industry recruits workers who have few other options: undocumented workers, yes, but the meat industry also recruits heavily from the recently incarcerated.
Beef, chicken, and pork processing plants have been Covid-19 hotspots, so much so that even given their limited options, many workers refused to enter the plants. Processing bottlenecks meant farmers wound up “depopulating” millions of animals.
The meat industry falsely shrieked that there would be a “meat shortage”--most of the meat would have gone for export in reality--and then used their political connections to strong-arm workers back into the slaughterhouses to deadly effect.
This is a morbid and obscene literalization of the horrific toll in zoonotic illnesses beef, in particular, has extracted from humanity. Grazing and grain-feed cultivation drives deforestation and puts humans in contact with previously secluded disease reservoirs.
Next, zoonotic illnesses spread rapidly through the fragile monocultures required by the grain-beef nexus. A recent study suggests that agriculture is responsible for half of all zoonotic disease and a full quarter of all infectious diseases since 1940.
Zoonotic illness is just one item on the beef industry’s lengthy butcher’s bill. Beef cattle production is a leading source of groundwater contamination and deforestation as well as an enormous consumer of antibiotics.
Beyond that, beef’s greenhouse gas footprint is devastating: including methane emissions, conservative estimates put beef’s GHG contribution at 6% of humanity’s total. Big Beef is literally helping to boil the planet. Think about that before you microwave your @steak_umm.
And beef requires the unimaginable suffering of millions of sentient, sensitive, and social creatures. Locked in CAFOs and feedlots that destroy their complex social forms, conventional beef production requires suffering, stress, and pain for most of a cow’s miserable life.
How has the beef industry responded to all of this? They dismiss the violence they do to the environment, workers, and animals with specious nonsense, pseudoscience, misinformation.
Like the tobacco and fossil fuel industries before them, Big Beef sponsors “research” to undercut the undeniable and robust scientific and empirical conclusion: cheap beef products from feedlot cattle is not compatible with planetary, worker, or cow wellbeing.
This is ultimately what is so perfectly galling and disgusting about the @steak_umm account. It’s shtick is to pretentiously denounce conspiratorial and anti-science thinking and to encourage media literacy and critical thinking. How noble!
Whatever the individual beliefs of the owners of the company and the person who runs the account, @steak_umm are part of the industrial beef production system and relies on cheap feedlot cattle, subsidized feed grain, and the evisceration of labor and environmental regulations.
They are also part of a meat industry that has worked to systematically misinform people, through bullshit twitter accounts and industry-funded studies, about the poisonous consequences of their product. It is precisely this approach the account purports to critique.
It’s not just that @steak_umm is hypocrisy (it is). It’s that @steak_umm's shtick is the very strategy the account denounces: the performance of truth and social responsibility to disguise the devastating inhuman machinery beneath. Shame on them. And shame on you if you RT them.
(In case it's not clear, I really really really despise that account.)
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