The Origin of Cow-killing Economics
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
"The Bhagavad-gita specifically instructs us, krishi-go-rakshya: we human beings must protect the cow, our milk-giving mother. Go-rakshya—'protect the cow,' not go-hatya—'kill the cow.' This is most sinful." —Srila Prabhupada
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that the activities of the productive class of society should be krishi-go-rakshya-vanijyam: agriculture, cow protection, and trade. Agriculture gives us grains. Cow protection gives us milk and the oxen to produce the grains. And trade, which comes about naturally when there’s surplus production, benefits the farmer and the rest of society.
Grains and cows are an important basis of wealth, not only in the spiritual culture advocated by Lord Krishna but also in modern materialistic economics. The crucial difference is that the center of the spiritual economic system is cow protection, and the center of the materialistic system is cow killing.
In this series, we’ll examine how cow killing became an important part of the modern economic system. As this brief history unfolds, note how slaughtering the cow, pushing the ox out of work, and stoking up production for centralized marketing and money-grabbing have led us to the present precarious state of affairs.
As we drive down the road and see many prosperous hamburger chains, we may take it for granted that cow slaughter has always been a basic feature of civilizations outside India. But that is not the case. The ancient Egyptians prohibited cow slaughter. The Hebrews, among others, restricted it to religious sacrifices. Still today, the pastoral peoples of East Africa slaughter cattle only during rituals and ceremonies. And in twentieth-century communist China, even Mao Zedong himself observed, “Draft oxen are a treasure to the peasants. As it is practically a religious tenet that ‘Those who slaughter cattle in this life will themselves become cattle in the next,’ draft oxen must never be killed.”
One might ask how an avowed atheistic leader such as Mao Zedong could have allowed himself to support a religious belief against killing oxen? Anthropologist Marvin Harris suggests that religious and ritual restrictions on cow slaughter and eating of cow flesh were not irrational laws but important tools for the welfare of society. The draft power or milk of the animal was too valuable to lose. And wasting pasture to feed many cows for slaughter would eventually have brought starvation.
Then why has cow slaughter become so prominent over the last few centuries? Let’s begin in Europe in the late Middle Ages. That’s when the draft horse began to push the ox out of agriculture. Even though horses needed costly grain, they could plow much faster than oxen. “They were able to increase greatly the amount of food that one farmer could raise, which meant that more men were freed to pursue the arts and crafts,” observed agricultural historians Vernon Carter and Tom Dale. So people started shifting to the towns, and oxen started heading for slaughter.
In the 1700’s, the industrial revolution speeded up cow slaughter. New farming machines and new crops such as clover and turnips made cows easier to raise for meat. And technological advances increased the output and efficiency of slaughterhouses. So producers could supply meat more cheaply.
Factory life forced people to change what they ate. Unlike the farmer, the factory worker couldn’t go home to a lunch of lentil stew or porridge. Bread and meat were more convenient. So the factory worker’s food preference changed to meat, and because his income was increasing, he could afford it.
In The Industrial Revolution, Frederick Dietz writes, “Since meat was coming to be more valuable than powers of draft in an ox,” traditional breeds that provided milk and draft power tended to be “replaced by such new breeds of cattle as the Durham shorthorns, the Herefords, and the Devons.” So the industrial revolution bred beef cattle.
But it was across the ocean in the newly developing American nation that raising cows for meat would become a big way to gain wealth. This is somewhat ironic because in America until about 1840, when draft horses became more widespread, oxen were the main source of agricultural traction. A team of oxen could be bought for one sixth the price of a team of horses, oxen could do the same work for less expense in feed, and oxen were resistant to disease. Ben Franklin noted, “The farmers are more thriving in those parts of the country where cattle are used than in those where the labour is done by horses. The latter are said to require twice the quantity of food to maintain them.”
Yet two factors made it possible and even profitable to raise cattle for slaughter. The first was the Native American crop maize—or corn—which gave much higher yields than European grains. The second was that by taking land from the Native Americans, European immigrants could create much larger farms than in Europe.
Since the Native Americans had never farmed with draft animals, most of their land had never been used for anything more than hunting and gathering. The new American farmers were able to take hold of large plots of this fertile land, so with oxen the farmers could reap tons of grain more than they needed for their own subsistence.
The farmers, of course, wanted to make money from the grain, but shipping it to market was difficult. Roads were poor, and carts were scarce, especially during the American Revolutionary War, when they were absorbed by the military. Smithsonian agricultural historian John Schlebecker relates the farmers’ unenlightened solution: “Corn-fed cattle and hogs which transported themselves provided one important way of moving the corn crop to market. The grain otherwise had to be transported by cart and wagon.”
North American farmers also developed vital economic relations with the slave-powered sugar plantations of the West Indies. European plantation owners preferred to plant all their West Indian acreage in sugar, sell it at high prices, and import whatever else they needed for food. “Corn, wheat, flour and bread from North America always found a ready market in the West Indies. The West Indians also bought large quantities of dried and salted meats.” Thus krishi-go-hatya, farming and cow killing, began to assume an important place in American economic development.
Neglecting to follow Krishna’s instructions to base the economy on agriculture, cow protection, and trade has led to disastrous results. The role of the ox in Krishna’s system is crucial. The ox’s limited productivity works against the growth of a centralized, impersonal, exploitive economy and keeps society based in the country, where the simple life favors spiritual advancement. The more society strays from Krishna’s plan, the more suffering increases. In my next column, I’ll discuss how the mechanization of agriculture multiplied the misery.