Tojo Smiles in Hell

by Andy Griffin

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Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma with a bomb made from ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and the remains of giant herbivores lie petrified on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. For every bushel of grain America sends overseas we flush three bushels of soil into the ocean, and bison tacos taste great. The Gulf of Mexico is so starved for oxygen that the fish swimming into it are turning belly up, but most Americans prefer corn-fed beef for its tenderness, juiciness, and mouth feel.

I already knew each of these disparate facts by itself, but my recent trip to South Padre Island taught me how they're all related.

An island on the gulf coast at the southern tip of Texas, South Padre was once a lonely outpost where sea turtles returned to lay their eggs. The sucrose beach is still there, and the island is home to an interesting sea turtle rescue facility, but nowadays South Padre Island enjoys renown as the target zone of a wild student mating ritual called Spring Break.

This year the island also hosted a convention for the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, where my wife Julia and I were invited to speak about our farm's efforts at direct marketing. During our visit, every school from the Hudson Bay to the Rio Grande was in session, so we didn't see the tens of thousands of party animals beach themselves and mingle -- but we did meet an eclectic group of flower growers, cowboys, and dirt farmers. I learned more than I taught, both at the official conference sessions and in conversations with other farmers over a series of excellent meals.

Today Los Angeles sucks half the west dry to satisfy its thirst, but the dinosaur skeletons in the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Blvd. testify that this region was once wet, green, and grazed by massive herbivores. Retreating glaciers from the last ice age left behind lakes and wet grassland meadows growing in rich, highly mineralized soils, evolving in association with thunder lizards.

Those grass-eaters grew extinct, and other animals (e.g. bison) took over their niche in the ecology. When the first European settlers arrived in America, they found vast herds of bison wandering the plains, intensively grazing an area before moving on. Immigrants from the old world took over the land from its original human occupants, concurrently eliminating the bison, who in turn bequeathed its grass-eating niche to its domesticated cousins, beef cattle.

A beef cow has got to be tough to survive on the open range. I don't mean the quality of their meat, but their spirit: prairie fires and wolves and drought and snow thin their numbers until only the strong, thrifty and self-reliant animals remain alive to propagate.

Enter the Texas Longhorn, a breed of cow descended from Spanish stock and improved by neglect and the survival of the fittest into a feral masterpiece of herbivore evolution. The early Longhorns were allowed to wander the range freely, much as the bison had, before being herded to markets in epic cattle drives. But soon the open range was closed off with fences, and the cattle were raised within the confines of individual ranches. Where ranchers didn't choose to respect the carrying capacity of the range, overgrazing became a problem. Hungry cattle ate the tastiest, most preferred grasses first, degrading the original matrix of grass and herb species.

COWSTexas Longhorn cattle multiplied prodigiously, ate voraciously, and overwhelmed the land -- too successful for their own good. Ranchers began to replace them with the Shorthorn, the Angus, or the Hereford. But even as breeds of cattle changed and the rangelands grew more poor, up until the Second World War almost all the beef consumed in America came from animals fattened on grass. There was only a small trade in corn-fed beef in the U.S., primarily directed at the luxury hotel trade.

Then came Tojo.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor blew our old economy away, and the whole American nation threw itself into the war effort. We built huge factories to make high explosives from ammonium nitrate. Following the war's end, these ammunition plants were rendered redundant by peace and converted to make high nitrogen fertilizers. These chemicals were applied to grain crops across the mid-west, yielding dramatic harvests especially in corn.

Considering the catastrophic effects of high-nitrogen fertilizers on water quality, soil vitality, and the economic stability of rural America, Tojo must be smiling from hell. Conversion can go in two directions. Timothy McVeigh didn't buy anything but conventional fertilizer and diesel fuel to build his bomb.

stermercorn.jpegWith no human market big enough or rich enough to purchase the increased stockpiles of corn, farmers fed a large percentage of the crop to animals in feed lots. Cattle husbandry changed again. Corn yields exploded and it was cheaper to fatten cattle in the feed lot than off grass. Breeders looking to improve their business paid more attention to the butcher's yield from a beef carcass than to the hardiness of their livestock under range conditions. They also added antibiotics to the feed to thwart disease in crowded pens. Meat got cheap, middlemen got rich, and grass-based cattle ranching entered a long economic decline.

Back on the farm, the high nitrogen fertilizers applied to the corn fields burned up the micro-organisms that create soil health; grain farmers now largely depend on chemicals to fertiliize their fields. Degraded grasslands are treated with nitrogen fertilizers to green them up -- but green or not, their mineral content has been depleted, and they will raise nutritionally inferior feedstuffs. Fertilizer manufactures got rich, while nitrogen from excessive fertilizer applications joined contaminated run-off from cattle feed lot sewage and flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. High nitrogen levels in the ocean prompted algal blooms that exhausted the oxygen supply in the water and killed fisheries.

We consumers are almost uniformly conservative when it comes to food, no matter what our party affiliation; we form our predilections in childhood, rarely change our minds, and hold our tastes with near religious conviction. When someone's tastes change in adulthood, it is often accompanied by or prompted by a spiritual awakening. If you look at the freaky clowns and jacks-in-boxes leering over our landscape, it's not too hard to imagine that our whole country needs a spiritual awakening.

Here's one recipe for change: stop worshiping the corporate corn god and start cooking grass-fed beef.

Some grass-fed beef isn't very tender or flavorful, but the grass-fed beef I ate in Texas sure was. Flavor and texture in meat is partly a reflection of the quality of the feedstuffs that the cattle eat. When the prairies were characterized by a diverse and complex ecology of perennial grasses and herbs, the longhorn cattle grew fat and their meat was tender. But America's rangelands are not as healthy as they once were. Success in promoting grass-fed beef is going to come when ranchers and the public understand that there's a lot more to it than letting a beast eat weeds before you kill it. Pasture management is key in producing flavorful grass-fed beef. Sustainable grazing systems can be developed when consumers support ranchers who see themselves as farmers who grow grass and harvest it with cattle.

Flavor and texture in meat also depends a lot on the genetics of the animal. Cattle are bred for tender meat. Ever since the practice of fattening cattle in feedlots swept the beef industry, cows have been selected for their ability to conform to the needs of the grain industry. As one conference speaker put it, "our cattle are like pigs in cow suits." Almost every cattle rancher who is dedicated to successfully making the transition from corn addiction to natural, pasture based grazing systems must attempt to breed desirable grazing traits back into his herds. Some ranchers are looking back to the Texas Longhorns, others are seeking out the now-rare heirloom breeds like Red Devon Cattle, which have always been raised on grass. In the end, every grassland habitat is different. When we're a sophisticated culture, we'll have our own breeds that have evolved to thrive under our local conditions.

On the plane coming home, eating the horrendous airline lunch, I thought back to the organic bison taco I'd had for dinner the day before. I've never been to a conference where the food was so good. The organizers sourced their food from the best organic producers in Texas, and the chefs did honor to their ingredients. The meals served were as effective an argument that organic foods are healthy and good as any of the speakers I heard. My plane swept into San Jose over the coast ranges, and I had the luck to glimpse the tiny scrap of land I farm thousands of feet below.

At least forty people in Texas told me their state is fifty years behind California in organic production, but as the urban sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Area came into view, I knew they were wrong. A clear case of Texas-sized modesty. The organic movement will never be meaningful as a limited practice that feeds an affluent elite -- e.g. the mere 4000 organic acres in my county of San Benito -- but only when it feeds middle America. In teaching prairie restoration, creating wildland corridors, and pressing for the rebirth of a grass-based beef industry, Texans aren't behind Californians at all.

It's a real fight to challenge consumers to confront their apathy and their eating habits, and to help revive an agriculture that can sustain us all. I proudly report that Texas is marching on the front lines.

Copyright 2005 Andy Griffin