The war on beef in the West

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

April 8, 2021

When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared March 20 as “Meatout Day,” urging residents to consume an alternative protein to meat, he provoked a bull market on the consumption of hamburgers, steaks, lamb chops and other meat products as consumers rushed to fill their plates.

The agriculture industry, which is the second largest in Colorado producing a value of $47 billion, reacted angrily as well and governors from at least two other states — Wyoming and Nebraska — cheerfully declared March 20 as a day that stands in support of meat.

Would Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, with his rural roots deeply planted in Sanpete County, ever, ever consider making a similar meatless proclamation?

That would be a resounding no.

“You won’t find a governor more supportive of our farmers and ranchers and defending grazing on public lands. Every day is Meat Day in Utah,” he said.

But animal production for food, including livestock grazing on public lands, is under increasing pressure across landscapes punctuated with lawsuits directed against federal land managers by environmental groups and political campaigns launched by animal rights activists.

Many cattle producers believe there’s an outright war on beef.

“Are we under assault? Very much so,” said Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy with the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“That’s why you saw such a huge fallout from the governor’s proclamation, which had no force of law. But overall, it goes to the threat the industry is facing that something like that could generate such a huge backlash in this state and around the country.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau is a member of a coalition fighting an “animal cruelty” initiative that could be on the ballot in 2022.

Its provisions include a prohibition of sexual contact with an animal by a person involving the animal’s genitals or anus, but it does not exempt generally accepted animal husbandry practices used in the care of horses, livestock, pigs, ducks, poultry, working police dogs or working police horses.

Martini says that means the gelding of livestock or the practice of artificial insemination would be banned, as would pregnancy checks or embryo transfers.

The coalition fears that the general public will simply view the initiative — if it makes it to the ballot — as a ban on sex with animals and not read the fine print.

That fine print also includes provisions that define natural life spans of animals and then requires that the animals live out at least a quarter of their life before slaughter.

A cow lives to 20 years, for example, so that provision would require the animal not be slaughtered until age 5, instead of 18 months, as is what happens.

Martini said the extended life span would ruin the chance of getting tender beef cuts, drive up ranchers’ costs and eviscerate the agriculture industry.

In addition, the Colorado ballot proposal says animals like those used in rodeos or hunting dogs should not be “overworked,” which Martini says has professional rodeo associations worried, as well as hunters and county fair organizers.

Martini said while the effort may be promoted under the mantle of safeguarding the environment and animals, it does just the opposite.

“The quicker we can get the cattle to weight and into the food supply chain, the better it is for the climate and sustainability practices because you are reducing the overall emissions from those animals,” he said.

A Colorado hearing in which the ballot proposal is being challenged was held Wednesday.

‘Goal to destroy agriculture 100%’

Could similar animal activism creep into Utah? Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson said it’s already here.

“They have discovered Utah and it is something we are going to have to deal with,” he said. “We are going to have to have a strategy, and we are going to need people to put out good information.”

Such a proposal prohibiting animal contact, he said, could wipe out the dairy industry because of contact with udders for milking and the use of artificial insemination.

He said Utah egg producers worked with lawmakers this last legislative session on a bill mandating cage-free conditions for hens by 2025,

Although it will cost producers nearly $200 million to retrofit their farms, Gibson said there was general support for the measure under threats that a referendum like Colorado’s would surface in Utah.

“It is about their goal to destroy agriculture 100%,” Gibson said.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Microsoft founder Bill Gates also turned up the pressure, detailing his views on climate change and asserting that “rich” nations should shift entirely to the consumption of synthetic beef to tamp emissions.

“You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they are going to make it taste even better over time,” he told the publication.

Gates was an early investor in plant-based meat pioneer Beyond Meat, a company that exploded out of the gates and is now estimated to be worth $12 billion.

Gibson doesn’t criticize consumers if they choose alternatives to real meat and dairy products, but he warns that the continuing war on agriculture will have its own environmental consequences if it succeeds.

“We have 2,000 acres that we farm in Davis and Weber counties,” he said. “If they run me out of business, those 2,000 acres will go to homes and what is that going to do for our environment and emissions?

“I will take my 2,000 acres and these dairy cows over the air in Salt Lake City any day of the week, any time of the year.”

Thanks, but no thanks

Tammy Pearson, a Beaver County commissioner who runs cattle in the Minersville and Milford areas, said she was talked into trying a plant-based burger by environmental acquaintances during a dinner in Reno.

“As long as you were 10 feet away, it looked good,” Pearson said. “I took one bite, and there was so much seasoning, it was all I could do to get it down. I ate the fries. If there are people who don’t want to eat beef, fine. ... There are plenty of people who love it.”

Craig Buttars, Utah’s new commissioner of agriculture over the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said he does not believe plant-based alternative meat and dairy products are a healthier alternative and says anyone who asserts that is likely misinformed.

“There is something about the term synthetic meat that does not stimulate my taste buds,” he said. “But the pressure on agriculture is real. There are a lot of wealthy, influential people who will push this agenda. I believe that we need to take steps to protect our agriculture industry.”

As the popularity of farmers markets continues to grow across the state, outreach done years ago by Envision Utah shows that residents are increasingly putting added importance on the value of locally grown meat and produce.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it exposed the vulnerabilities of the food supply chain in Utah and elsewhere across the country, with U.S. citizens rushing to supermarkets to stock up on meat and dairy products.

Beef production in Utah is the state’s top agricultural industry sector, generating nearly $500 million in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although that number dropped in 2020 when the pandemic hit, both Buttars and Gibson hope the importance of having a vibrant agriculture economy in Utah resonates with consumers.

If anything, they say, the state should concentrate its efforts on boosting meat production in Utah and expanding access to meat processing facilities.

As the supply chain dried up for high-end meat due to the shuttering of cruise lines and expensive sit-down restaurants — and processing plants shut down due to the risk of spreading coronavirus — cattle, lambs and other animals sat idle on ranches and in feedlots.

Pearson said there have been efforts to open meat processing facilities in Utah that would allow cattle to be processed here and not shipped out of state, but the drive has been opposed.

The pandemic, with its stranglehold on the food supply chain coupled with a surge in layoffs, also led the Utah Farm Bureau and producers to launch the Farmers Feeding Utah initiative to provide a market for products and to help the food-deprived.

‘Welfare ranchers’

Livestock producers face pressure and litigation from environmental groups and other advocacy organizations, such as those who seek to protect wild horse herds, and critics who say livestock grazing has ruined public lands. Methane emissions from how cattle process their food and are released through burping are also a target of climate change activists.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, a cattle rancher, says the controversy over public lands grazing is nothing new, but it is getting worse.

He recalled an activist campaign in the early 1990s that championed “Cattle Free By 93,” and backlash against ranchers in which an operator found 21 of his calves shot to death by the Escalante River and sugar poured in the gas tank of his ranch truck.

“This war on Western ranchers has been going on for a while, but what scares me it is getting more intense. These groups see this as their opportunity to take advantage of power. Everyone needs to start rallying around multiple use, because they are not only going after us, but those who ride ATVs, those who hunt, those who fish.”

Environmental critics say livestock grazing on public lands has been causing unchecked ecological damage for decades.

Josh Osher, public policy director for the Western Watersheds Project, accuses both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management of grossly mismanaging grazing allotments under criteria established more than 50 years ago that fails to adequately monitor rangeland conditions over time and make necessary reductions.

The Southwest landscape, for example, was in much better shape before the onset of the warming trend, but federal land managers rubber stamp renewals of grazing allotments and blindly ignore the conditions on the ground, Osher said.

Critics often term grazing operators as “welfare ranchers” due to the low prices per acre that they pay for the number of animals they have on the ground.

Osher say operators pay just $1.35 per cow and her calf for a month, with carte blanche permission to eat as much food as they can during that length of time.

“Too many cows being allowed to eat too many of the plants have completely changed the ecology of public lands,” he said.

He said the push by the Trump administration to have the industry self-regulate and not be accountable to the Bureau of Land Management is worrisome, but perhaps that will change with the new Biden administration.

The Forest Service, too, is changing how it manages grazing on its public lands by asserting it has discretionary authority to make drastic alterations to policy absent a meaningful public process, Osher said.

In Utah, the Forest Service has 778 grazing permitees that involve 100,000 cattle and horses and 190,000 domestic sheep and goats.

Intermountain Region spokesman Timothy Beery said 53% of Forest Service land in the state is available for public lands grazing, with the permits impacting 11% of the available forage.

Lisa Reid, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said grazing permits in the state have dropped from 1,576 in 2001 to 1,461 in 2019 — a decrease likely influenced by consolidation of different permits into one and the onset of urban sprawl in areas like Washington and Salt Lake counties.

Reid said livestock are the most regulated living forager on public lands, but critics disagree.

“There are over a million privately owned cows and sheep currently wreaking havoc on our Western public lands,” said Grace Kuhn, of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “They are stressing native sagebrush habitat allowing for invasive and highly flammable cheatgrass to take over.”

The wild horse campaign has been involved in litigation against the Rock Springs Grazing Association in Wyoming to defend the wild horses in the region since 2011 over a battle that underscores the conflict between ranching and wild horses — and the amount of forage available for both.

A plan that would remove 3,500 horses from that Wyoming rangeland is being done for the benefit of livestock producers with permits for grazing on public land, Kuhn said.

Osher said the vast majority of rangelands are denuded due to overgrazing by livestock, failing to meet ecological conditions that support a healthy ecosystem.

Gibson and others in Utah’s ranching and farming community bristle at the accusation, arguing that it is in their best interest to be good stewards of the land.

“We are the environmentalists who care more than anyone on the planet because our entire living comes from that,” Gibson said.

In this last legislative session — perhaps as a nod to the threat to ranching — Utah lawmakers divvied out $400,000 for a study looking at the benefits of livestock grazing on public lands.

Osher said there aren’t enough studies, or paperwork, that will convince him of its benefits.

“I don’t personally have anything against ranchers, but it is personal in the sense that I use the public lands, too. I go out hiking, I go out fishing and I go hunting and camping. When the stream I want to camp along is completely trampled by livestock and full of cow (manure), that’s a problem,” he said.

While blame can be laid at the feet of the ranching community, he said it is ultimately federal land agencies that should be more protective of public lands that he contends are being ruined by grazing.

“Yeah, it’s personal, but it is not personal because I have a beef with the ranchers but because I have seen firsthand the impacts, and those need to be addressed,” Osher said.

Gibson said the pressure is not bound to let up and will grow worse given the trend of increasing activism directed at the livestock industry.

“If we want to keep it here, we have fight to keep it here,” he said.

Originally posted by Deseret News