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The Origins of Cow-Killing Economics: Part Two


Starting around 1840, American farming became increasingly centralized. Replacing oxen with horses freed people to move to the cities to work in factories. And the new city dwellers became consumers for the products they’d once grown.

The village miller with his ox-powered grist mill gave way to automated mills in large Midwestern cities. As the mills of the Midwest began selling wastes back to farmers to feed animals meant for meat, the mills and grain companies grew still larger and richer. Grain prices became something for Chicago investors to gamble on.

Better steel-making helped the railroads develop, and refrigerated railroad cars helped great slaughterhouses develop in places like Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. As the twentieth century began, profits from cow slaughter surged. Meat-packers shipped millions of pounds of beef products being exported to Europe. But the biggest force for cow slaughter was yet to arrive—the tractor.

The first big push for the tractor came during World War I when U.S. farmers shipped more than 1.5 million draft animals to Europe for the military. To buy tractors to replace these animals, the farmers took out big loans, risking their land in the process. Within the next two decades, “Gasoline had replaced oats as the main ‘fuel’ used in agricultural operations, freeing millions more acres of grainlands for cash food crops.”

Boosting yields with chemical fertilizers and hybrids, farmers began using more land to grow grain for cash. Grain output shot up fifty percent or more. What to do with all that grain?

The ready availability of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap corn helped to make the United States a nation of steak eaters.… These steers were truly ‘hides stuffed with corn.’ In a sense, this was and is a wasteful use of grain.… But America had lots of grain, and a food system grew up that made it possible—even economically necessary—to run as much grain as possible through livestock.

But American farmers were still turning out more grain than America or the export markets could absorb. When this made grain prices drop, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was stuck: it had to pay huge subsidies to bail out farmers—and then pay to store the excess grain. Meanwhile, grain firms saw profits dwindling. What could be done?

To strategists at the USDA, [and] Cargill and Continental [two multi-national grain firms], the solution to the surplus problem was self-evident. It was to get people in other countries to eat the way Americans did. A global economy in which millions of rice-eaters in Asia were converted to wheat bread was one that absorbed some of the perennial U.S. wheat surpluses. And a food system in which affluent countries bought billions of dollars of U.S. corn and soybeans to feed their beef, hogs, and poultry every year was one that helped the American balance of payments and trade.

In 1954 the U.S. passed a bill, Public Law 480, to get rid of excess grain by turning it into foreign aid. Under P.L. 480, Uncle Sam offered selected countries long-term, low- interest loans with which to buy grain. In many developing countries, this started people eating American wheat instead of locally grown rice and millet.

In newly industrialized countries, grain from P.L. 480 put meat on middle-class plates.

By 1956, under P.L. 480 America exported half of its output of 295 million bushels of feed grains. And after 1962, Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy shielded European Community farmers, so about the only grains America could profitably sell in the EC were feed grains, especially soybeans.

So feed grains took over from food grains. “Livestock rather than people became the main market for American grain, and soybeans and corn ranked with jet aircraft and computers as the country’s major exports.”

Outside America, as people’s incomes rose, they wanted more meat. “Between the late 1950’s and 1983, total world meat production (by volume) increased about two and a half times.” Slightly more than half the increase came from poultry and pig meat, but clearly the goal was to eat like Americans—and this meant eat beef.

Srila Prabhupada notes, “Modern civilization is centered on animal killing.” History, in fact, shows a grim picture: the sacred cow killed for the sacred dollar.

In the short term, the U.S.D.A. and the large grain companies seemed to have solved their problems. Once again big money could be made selling grain. But long term the effects were disastrous, as we shall discuss in the next article of this series.


  1. Robert West Howard, The Vanishing Land (Villard Books, 1985), p. 129.
  2. John Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive (Iowa State University Press, 1975), pp. 80-81, 157-158.
  3. Howard, op cit, p. 159-160.
  4. Dan Morgan, Merchants of Grain (Viking Press, 1979), p. 98.
  5. Ibid., p. 99.
  6. Ibid., p. 99.
  7. Harry Fornari, Bread Upon the Waters (Aurora Publishers, Inc., 1973), p. 118.
  8. Morgan, op. cit., p. 139.
  9. Phillip Raikes (Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1988), p. 128.
  10. Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.27.11, purport.