Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2021

Sacred Cow; Tribes on the Edge

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

One of the vexing questions facing ecosocialists is how to create a sustainable society that breaks with meat consumption. There are contradictory tendencies at work, with the vegan left taking an abolitionist stance as well as ecomodernist support for meat-like products such as Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Bill Gates has come out in favor of synthetic meats, arguing in MIT’s Technology Review as part of his book tour on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that rich nations should only eat synthetics. (It should be mentioned that is a Beyond Meat investor.)

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a series of posts on beef that were collected together on my Columbia website under the title “Cattle and Capitalism”. It included an excerpt from an Alexander Cockburn “Beat the Devil” column in the April 22, 1996 Nation Magazine:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

While I was sympathetic to the idea that eating beef had to come to an end, I must confess that I used to stop at the bistro across the street from my high-rise and had a cheeseburger with fries two or three times a month. I also have to wonder if Cockburn ate meat himself. I bet Jeffrey St. Clair can fill me in.

Yet, at the back of mind I always wondered how you can reconcile an anti-meat agenda with Karl Marx’s analysis of the metabolic rift. At a Socialist Scholars Conference around 20 years ago, John Bellamy Foster gave what was probably his first talk on the crisis of soil fertility in the 19th century that Justin Von Liebig devoted himself to diagnosing and solving. Basically, Liebig’s research provided a context for Marx’s examination of the agrarian question. Like climate change today, the general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870 not only provoked scientific research but wars over control over natural fertilizers like guano.

The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil’s nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.

This being the case, wouldn’t the disappearance of livestock from agriculture simply perpetuate the need for chemical fertilizers and every ill associated with it? Since modern farming relies heavily on mechanization, ox-drawn plows would not suffice. Wouldn’t the integration of cattle, poultry and lambs as livestock into farming resolve the metabolic rift in the most effective manner?

Unless you are committed to the idea that slaughtering animals is evil, that possibility must be considered. Additionally, for homo sapiens, the most effective source of protein comes from animals, not plants. Leaving aside the animal rights question, an argument can be made for exactly that. You can find it made in a powerful new documentary available in the usual VOD venues, including Amazon, titled “Sacred Cow” that was directed by Diana Rodgers and based on a book of the same title she co-wrote with Robb Wolf.

On the film’s website, Rodgers writes, “As we’ve become more globalized, the entire world is now pushing towards the ‘heart healthy’ (and highly processed) Western diet. In the process, we’re destroying entire ecosystems and human health through industrial, ultra-processed food.”

Drawing upon a wide range of academic researchers in favor of the consumption of meat products and the regenerative farmers who produce them, the film effectively makes the case for solving the metabolic rift in the way that Karl Marx proposed but without mentioning his name or the theory once.

There are two important considerations that the film takes up. To start with, it calls for abolition of the current method of raising livestock in factory-like conditions since they are far removed from the crops that need organic fertilizer and because they are so cruel to the animals. Instead, the farmers interviewed throughout the film show exactly how they must be deployed in and around the fields where crops are being grown rather than cooped up in monstrous conditions. In a very short time, the re-introduction of cattle and lambs can return topsoil to the conditions that existed before Alexander Cockburn decried for its inevitable role in desertification.

If your first impulse is to question whether an old-fashioned method of raising livestock can supply a hungry world, the film points out that ruminants such as cows and sheep can feed themselves from the grasses that grow along hillsides that are not suitable for raising crops. In one of the more eye-opening scenes, we meet a Mexican regenerative farmer named Alejandro Carrillo who has begun to reintroduce cattle into a seemingly barren part of the state of Chihuahua. The animals have not only begun to enrich the soil and make it suitable for farming but transform the ecosphere so that birds now flock to it for their own well-being.

Finally, on the ethical questions. These farmers and their supporters in the academy are not opposed to ending an animal’s life in the greater pursuit of keeping humanity and the natural world in balance. The film shows a new slaughterhouse based on the principles of Temple Grandin who compassion for all creatures large and small is suffused with humanitarianism.

Another new film available as VOD, including Amazon, takes up the question of humanity and the natural world’s survival even though the people who are its subject matter could not be more vulnerable to the ecological crisis. Directed by Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, “Tribes on the Edge” is an impassioned plea for the survival of around 7,000 indigenous Brazilians who call Vale do Javari their home. Constituting an area about the size of Portugal and on the border with Peru, the natives are facing extinction as a result of epidemic cases of hepatitis and malaria.

Although the documentary does not connect their plight to the years of Workers Party rule, it implicitly blames both Lula and Dilma Rousseff for allowing the support network for indigenous people to wither and die. It seems obvious that FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, has been a victim of neglect under their two administrations. Even worse, Bolsonaro seems intent on doing to it what Donald Trump did to agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting natural resources—namely, throttling them.

The film does not attempt to pinpoint the cause of the epidemics except to say that the border between Peru and Brazil being porous. When indigenous peoples cross the border into Javari, there are no border guards. They bring their illnesses with them, especially hepatitis that is very contagious. This is not to speak of the ranchers, miners, farmers and oil companies that are beginning to encroach on Javari in spite of legal protections afforded by the state.

At the end of the film, we are told that only 4 percent of the world’s population are indigenous, but they nurture 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity on their land. Although written four hundred years ago, John Donne’s poem could not be more timely:

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

5 Comments »

  1. Yes, indeed, the elimination of cattle from agriculture would in fact increase hugely the amount of chemical fertilizer. Trying to, for example, fertilize all Kansas
    wheat fields with…compost (the only “green” fertilizer I know of), would be impossible. Animal manure is what keeps all grass lands fertile and has for millennia. If one reads David Montgomery’s “Dirt” it will become a bit clearer. As well read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” section on Polyface Farms…where the *natural cycle* of closing the carbon cycle comes into play, and can only be accomplished by the managed use of grass fed, grass finished…cows. There is a LOT to understand but it falls under the rubric of “Regenerative Agriculture”… disdains the use of all chemical inputs and…very importantly, the plow, which is a weapon against the soil itself. Tons to understand here about soil fertility

    Comment by David Walters — February 21, 2021 @ 10:29 pm

  2. I recall Cockburn mentioning he was a carnivore in an essay. He was about to prepare a goat. At least 10 years ago.

    Comment by Shawn Britton — February 22, 2021 @ 5:49 pm

  3. I swore I just posted this comment, but anyway Cockburn was not a vegetarian.
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2005/08/19/cutting-up-mochie/

    Comment by freeofu — February 23, 2021 @ 10:56 am

  4. oops mistyped my fake name above.

    Comment by freetofu — February 23, 2021 @ 10:57 am

  5. Hey Louis. You should look into cultured meat, which is grown from animal cells, without slaughter. I’m convinced it’s the future.

    Comment by Jon Hoch — March 3, 2021 @ 11:53 am


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