In writing about climate change it’s hard to avoid the use of catch phrases and clichéd metaphors, as much we try to stop shooting silver bullets and keep all those pesky canaries out of our coal mines. At times, though, such oft-repeated words are used in paradoxical ways, jarring you into thinking about them a bit more deeply. This happened to me a few days ago when, in response to new Department of Agriculture data on the U.S. livestock industry, a beef producer referred to the impacts of the persistent drought as “a perfect storm.”
As it happened, this was the second time I’d seen this drought-as-storm metaphor. A full year ago, Mark Miller of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association ascribed the record high prices of beef to “a perfect storm of elements.” These included feed grains increasingly being diverted to produce biofuels, reduced cattle herds, and drought conditions in Texas and Oklahoma – described by a Texas state extension agent as “the worst drought that anyone alive has ever seen, because it was the worst in recorded history, back to 1895.”
That regional drought went national in 2012, causing major declines in grain production and driving record corn, soy, and wheat prices even higher. And now we’re seeing that it’s hurting pasture for beef cattle as well as the grains they’re fed. Here’s how Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, describes it:
“It’s trite, but it is the perfect storm. We have no rain, there’s no feed readily available, what is available costs too much and the cost of transportation has increased. We’re just in a bad place.”
There’s no doubt that the situation is dire for the beef industry. The U.S. cattle herd has declined to a level smaller than it has been since 1952. The 2011 calf crop is the smallest since 1949. And the effects are rippling up the supply chain; Cargill Beef announced last month that it would stop production at its Plainview, Texas slaughterhouse and lay off all 2,000 of its workers.
But is “a perfect storm” the right metaphor? I’m not quibbling about using a wet event to describe a dry one; my question is more fundamental. Is this just an incredibly unusual coincidence of bad things all happening at once? Or is it something that is going to be repeated again and again in years to come, because of the way that the agricultural system responds to global warming?
For an answer, compare what has happened to beef to the very different situation of the U.S. chicken industry. There, production of broilers (chickens for meat) was up 3 percent in November, stocks are up by 4.8 percent over the previous year, and the forecast for 2013 production was just increased to 36.8 billion pounds. Despite the drought, the poultry industry is weathering the “perfect storm.” Why the difference?
For a start, the American diet is changing. U.S. per-capita beef consumption, despite the “real food for real people” and “it’s what’s for dinner” advertising, has declined more than 30 percent since its high point in 1975. During the same time period, our chicken consumption has doubled.
There’s a difference on the production side too. Both beef and chicken production now depend heavily on feed grains, but beef depends on pasture too. And while feed grains can be stored for many months and shipped all over the world, the pasture grasses stay put – and even if you can cut them to make hay, that’s much bulkier than grain, harder to ship, and loses its already-lower nutritional value as it dries out.
Drought hurts both crops and pasture. “For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass. The flower in it drops off, and its beauty is gone.” (James 1:11). But grains can be shipped in from elsewhere, while drying-up pastures are hard to replace. Furthermore, beef cattle are less efficient at turning feed grains into meat than chickens. And finally, beef calves take a lot longer to grow to slaughter weight than chickens or pigs, meaning that the “beef cycle” is longer and takes more time to adjust to changing conditions.
All these things make beef more vulnerable to droughts than the alternatives. But they’re not going to be the one-time-only, incredible-coincidence events that the metaphor of a perfect storm suggests. On the contrary: beef is not only a bigger cause of climate change than other foods; it’s also more likely to be hurt by it.