Earth Day founder Denis Hayes and wife Gail Boyer Hayes have taken a surprising intellectual and historical journey with cows. Their new book COWED: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture and Environment, is also a meditation on our future relationship with animals who have played such a role in the human experience – for labor, milk, and meat – for thousands of years. Their work is a gentle and fond treatment of cows, but carries a powerful call for change – specifically in the way they’re raised and how many of them consumers eat. A former board member of The HSUS, Denis is president of the Bullitt Foundation, which works to safeguard the environment in the Pacific Northwest, and Gail is an environmental attorney. In this interview with me, they discuss a subject that has bearing and relevance for every consumer and for the health of our planet and, of course, for every cow, too.
COWED provides an engaging and affectionate history of cows. You seem to love and admire them as “the second most influential mammal in North America.” How did you come to do so?
On a vacation traveling around rural England, Scotland, and Ireland, we kept seeing small herds of cows everywhere. We recognized a few of the most common breeds, but many were new to us. Gail, who had never before spent time up close to cows, and who forms strong bonds with animals, started snapping photos of them. Something about cows pulled at her. The closest she can come to explaining it is that being next to a gentle cow gives her a sense of peace akin to being around elephants, whales, and redwoods.
My approach to cows had been less enthusiastic. Domesticated vertebrates—overwhelmingly livestock—now weigh twenty (!) times as much as all wild terrestrial vertebrates on the planet. In simpler language, cows—and the land to produce food for cows—are squeezing wildlife toward extinction.
So you began this book with a negative orientation?
Actually, long before we decided to write a book, Gail had convinced me that America would be a very different sort of place if it weren’t for cows. Cows are key to understanding who we are as a people. While I’m still not as enraptured by cows as she is, I’m definitely pro-cow – meaning “pro” a sustainable number of cows raised intelligently, organically, and humanely on grass, not corn.
For a very long time, cows and humans had a symbiotic relationship that provided mutual benefits. Cows turned perennial grasses and forbs into milk, meat, and muscle power. They fertilized the fields. In return, people took care of them, protected them from predators, and gave them water and shelter in harsh weather. Cows were vastly more important to the development of America—its economics, politics, and culture—than any other animal except humans.
How has that relationship changed?
In this country—unlike, say, the United Kingdom—the agricultural sector has consolidated. Small farmers were bought out or pushed aside by giant, faceless agribusiness corporations headquartered far from cows and the corn fields that feed them. Instead of the small herds that were sprinkled across the countryside in my youth, today the real money-makers in the cow business are corporations that sell machinery, chemicals, and patented seed to corn farmers, and other big corporations that process and market milk and beef.
Just four firms—JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef Packing—dominate national meatpacking. Along with the impact of a handful of gigantic purchasers—dominated by McDonald’s—they set rules that are implemented thousands of miles away. The giant feedlots that fatten cattle for slaughter, some with more than 120,000 cows, have to truck in grain to feed them. And the waste produced by huge numbers of cows concentrated in one place cannot be legally or usefully disposed of. The poop—along with the chemicals and antibiotics and germs in it—get into our food, air, and water.
What troubles you most about the current relationship?
Cows, which used to have names, are now given bar codes. They are processed like fungible widgets in an industrial machine, not like sentient beings. I was genuinely shocked to learn the typical dairy cow is treated worse than beef cattle. Dairy cows now produce twice as much milk the average cow produced when I was young. In Temple Grandin’s memorable metaphor of a car’s tachometer, dairy cows are kept running in the red zone. Many non-organic dairy cows never taste a blade of grass, feel dew on their tongues, or see the sky. They produce only one or two calves (to trigger their milk production) before being turned into hamburger.
You cast meat reduction as a profoundly political act, one that requires no act of Congress or a court. How much meat reduction do you think we can and should achieve over the next few years?
Widespread changes in public behavior require time. However, we’re moving inexorably toward less meat consumption. Until we started writing COWED, Gail and I hadn’t eaten beef in 25 years. Then we encountered ranchers who were going to great lengths to grass-finish their cows, raise them humanely, and keep them organic. They were providing great stewardship of their land and leading lives of integrity. We were not always in complete political alignment with them, but we really respect the lives they have chosen to live. And we decided that if we don’t eat their product, who will? We still don’t eat much beef, but we grill every waitress we encounter about the source of the restaurant’s beef, and if it is organic, grass-finished, and humanely certified, we will occasionally order it.
The strategy we embraced for reform consists of persuading huge numbers of current beef eaters who eat lots of poorly raised, very fat beef, to shift to eating a smaller amount of very-high-quality beef. If we can encourage a sea change in consumer demand, the industry will be forced to change. The industry has already written off the 3 percent of Americans who are true vegetarians, and even doubling the number of vegetarians would do very little to benefit cows.
You both seem to have a lot of hope for the organic sector and for certification programs for raising animals. Why is that so?
Most Americans know in their hearts that factory-farmed animals receive poor treatment at best and barbaric treatment at worst. In their hearts, most people care about this. At least they do if they think about it—if they simply remember that beef comes from cows, not butchers. An organic or humane label on a product reminds us all to think of animal welfare, and prompts a purchase that supports a better system. We look for proof that beef was grass finished, not merely “grass fed,” because all steers are grass fed before being sent to a feedlot. When it comes to dairy products we look for more than just an organic label on milk or cheese, because we know that much organic milk is produced in factory farms.
All trustworthy labels merely enhance Adam Smith’s idealized free market, which, of course, requires perfect information. It is pure hypocrisy for conservative, market-oriented businesses to fight tooth and nail against anything that will give curious consumers information about their food.