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We’re watching the end of the cow era

My grandfather loved raising cows so much that not long after my grandmother had convinced him to give up a successful dairy farm operation for saner hours, he bought a herd of beef cows. I grew up in this family, the daughter of a third-generation farmer with my grandfather just next door, always ready with his stories of the highs and lows of raising livestock.

Today, you and I are likely watching the end of the cow era, perhaps the beginning of the eventual end of animal agriculture altogether. The grandfathers of tomorrow won’t be regaling their grandchildren with stories of escaped cows causing traffic jams, and artificial insemination. They will tell of the day they first sank their tiny canines into an Impossible Burger, and how a long, long time ago, not all meat was lab grown (“Gasp! Gross!” will be the hushed responses). That’s a good thing. Given the too-common welfare violations, enormous waste and ecological footprint of cows – according to one analysis, Impossible Burgers have an 89% smaller carbon footprint, use 96% less land and 87% less water compared to traditional meat – we should welcome the end of animal agriculture.

But the folks whose livelihoods are beef-based are less excited about the death of their industry, which is completely understandable. The cow and cowboy are integral to the traditions, identities and mythologies of the American West (at least post-Manifest Destiny and to say nothing of the problematic role of these mythologies on sustainable public lands management and in the Sagebrush Rebellion’s defiance of federal law). But they are not a part of the West’s future economy. Tomorrow’s natural resource jobs will support and serve outdoor recreation, wildfire management, renewable energy and other sustainable industries.

We need to be planning for this shift now. Where and how can we help the current crop of Future Farmers of America transition their family farms from cows to beans? Who will fund and design programs that help farmers and ranchers learn new skill sets for more sustainable economies in the American West? (I’m looking at you, Warren Buffett. Call me, I’d like to help, too.) The time for thinking, planning and doing is right now, or maybe yesterday, but definitely cannot wait until tomorrow.

What about the cows themselves? Do we value such domestic species for their existence, intrinsic value, aesthetics, cultural and historic significance, and the rights they may have to exist? Or are domestic animals raised for food, such as Hereford cows and barely functional chickens, bred to grow fast and more meat, Frankenstein’s creations that should be planned out of existence? We need philosophers, innovators and anyone who cares about the welfare of life to be talking and thinking about the ethical implications of the end of animal agriculture.

My grandfather was born in 1905 and isn’t around to see the end of his beloved cows. I don’t know what he would make of all this modern change. I know farming was the only life and livelihood he knew and loved. It shaped him, and my father and me, into observant and thoughtful people. We can spot a thundercloud or a sick animal in a herd before most others, and know how to adapt to the unplanned events in our day. It’s in large part because of him that I can see these changes on the horizon, accept and welcome them, and call on my neighbors to help. That is how a community adapts to change and thrives together.

Michelle L. Lute

Michelle Lute, Ph.D., of Santa Fe, studies human-wildlife interactions to promote coexistence.


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