Smarty Pants Podcast

Meat Made

How 19th-century beef created modern America

By Stephanie Bastek | May 31, 2019
"A fruitful teeming soil where the ranchers toil" is the inscription on this photograph from Paloduro, TX (Keystone View Company/Library of Congress)

The production of beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas than the cultivation of beans, and seven times more than that of chicken. We’re not eating as much beef in America as we were in the 1970s, but we’ve held steady at over 50 pounds per person a year, and beef consumption is rising exponentially in places like Brazil and China. How did having cheap beef become so desirable that we were willing to overlook environmental degradation, worker safety, and animal welfare, in order for the average American to eat 220 pounds of meat a year? The historian Joshua Specht thinks the answer lies with 19th-century cattle. In the span of just a few decades, American beef production flipped from a small-scale, local operation to a highly centralized industry with its heart in the meatpacking plants of Chicago and railroad supplies veining the United States. Modern agribusiness as we know it today was born in the cattle-beef complex, and those meatpacking conglomerates did such a good job of aligning their interests with those of consumers that the system has remained largely unchanged for the past hundred years. The model is now used in  the entire industry, from poultry to pig farming.

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