Rob Firing is the author of the cookbook Steak Revolution, which was published this summer by HarperCollins. He is currently at work on his next book, Bos taurus: How the Cow Changed the Course of Civilization.
The number of cows on the Earth today – about 1.3 billion – is a growing concern to many of us compelled by the fact that our climate is changing. Cows naturally produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and because they are either raised on industrial feed that throws both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (the other two major greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, or on ranch land that strips whole forests of carbon-sequestering trees, they have become a problem. It would be wise to eat fewer cows, perhaps even moral not to eat them at all.
But consider this: The cattle population worldwide today is a mere fraction of the many billions of gigantic herbivores that roamed every continent (except Antarctica) for 50 million years of historical changes to Earth’s climate. This included 20 Ice Ages, until the most recent one, roughly 11,000 years ago. That was the first Ice Age known to our ancient ancestors, and many esteemed paleo-ecologists believe it is no coincidence that this was the one that marked the end of the Cenozoic era, sometimes called the Age of Mammals.
The “overkill hypothesis,” first espoused by American geoscientist Paul S. Martin in the 1970s, postulated that it was paleolithic humans (and the later arrivals to the Americas) who cleared the plains and forests of the great herds. The mastodon, giant elk and woolly rhinoceros of the Americas are just three of the dozens of species of large herbivores, most at least as large as a bison, that fell victim (along with their natural predators) to clever human hunters. Much the same happened in Asia, Australia and Eurasia, until we have what we have today: vestiges of large (and quickly dwindling) populations in parts of Africa, and small patches of populations in parts of Asia, Europe and North America.
Of all these billions of extinct beasts, the genetic heritage of one remains alive now. The mighty aurochs (Bos primigenius), a muscular and fearsome, horned herbivore about the size of an elephant, was first domesticated and bred into a gentler, smaller animal, Bos taurus (the cattle we know today) by paleolithic humans about 10,500 years ago in what is now Iran. This means that all the breeds of cattle today that are destined to be made into hamburgers owe their existence to this single domestication event, which, it has been recently discovered, occurred within a herd of just 80 cows.
That cattle today are too often raised in terrible conditions that damage not just them but the environment, I have no doubt. That the meat from these cattle, unlike the meat from the herds with which early humans evolved, and then devoured to extinction, is of lower quality also seems to me inescapable. These things are of course linked. Large grazers, such as the aurochs, co-evolved with the grassland biome, which was the predominant natural habitat when our paleolithic ancestors took to the spear. Vast prairie and big grazers helped bring each other into existence, ensuring a future together and forming the landscape that with time brought forest-dwelling primates to the plains.
And so our first hamburgers were not the heart-clogging, forest-clearing, global-warming kind; instead, they were from animals that actually provided environmental services, and nourished early humans such that they saw their first and largest significant population spike, outstripped only by the advent of widespread agriculture.
Is it a fantasy to wish we could return cows – the most populous proxy animal to the great, extinct herds – to their traditional role? Renowned Zimbabwean ecologist Alan Savory and his growing following are attempting to do exactly that in their fight to contain desertification in arid climates, raising cows in a way that mimics what they might do in a natural setting. His results are impressive, transforming previously desiccated landscapes into ecologically viable savannah, able to hold surface water and support an astonishing variety of plants and animals.
Is it naive to think cows can be both naturally raised and economically viable? A growing number of ranchers in North America and around the world are paving the way, some of them out of necessity, having discovered, as Mr. Savory did before them, that cows can be employed to bring overused land back from the brink. Even in Texas, the hub state of beef production in one of the most beef-eating countries in the world, only about half the farms are of the confined, industrial, polluting sort. The other half, whether they practise Savory-style land management or not, are on actual ranch land, and have reasonably sized herds.
Has this all occurred to me in a flash as I take the off-ramp toward my roadside burger lunch on the way to the cottage or as I load my shopping cart with AAA Angus? I won’t say that it has. But in the moment before my first bite, I pause and wonder.