BYÂ EMMA HABERMAN
As of July 1, the national cattle herd was recorded at 99.39 million, down 1.4 percent from a year ago, and the lowest it's been since the 1950s. The dwindling cattle population will cause a spike in beef prices; livestock economists predict record prices in 2012.
Why the dramatic population drop? More than 62 percent of land in a six-state southern region, including Texas, the biggest cattle-producing state, is experiencing extreme drought, making life difficult for ranchers tending beef cattle. Two weeks ago, 86 percent of pasture and range conditions in Texas were rated "poor" or "very poor" by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought has sent the cost of corn, the main ingredient in livestock feed, shooting up 71 percent in the last year. To tighten corners, animals that could be used for breeding are being slaughtered earlier to cut down feed costs. This cycle (which incorporates the always controversial corn industry) keeps costs down for ranchers, but drives them up for consumers.
Here we have the famous omnivore's dilemma. Even considering all the information we have about how the environment and cattle farming affect each other, it is still difficult for many of us to give up meat cold turkey, so to speak. It's hard to sacrifice the nutrients, satisfaction and taste that meat provides; it's simply a tough habit to break. So let's not take drastic measures just yet. Simply cutting down on meat consumption and making a few purchasing adjustments can have a huge impact on the environment, and a minimal impact on your habits.
For an in-depth guide to wise meat-eating, check out the Environmental Working Group's Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health. In the meantime, try these five tips for a more cattle-friendly omnivore lifestyle:
Buy grass-fed beef: Make sure your beef is grass-fed. Grass-fed beef may become as inexpensive as corn-fed beef in the new livestock economy, and you will avoid ingesting the processed corn from the livestock feed.
Buy from local farms: Support your area farmers by buying local beef or eating at restaurants that source their beef locally. You'll be contributing to the local economy, and you'll know exactly where your beef came from.
Try beef substitutes: I'm the first to admit that there is no replacement for a cheeseburger, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other delicious options. Cutting down on beef doesn't have to mean ditching meat entirely. Instead of a burger, try a turkey or bison burger. Instead of steak, go for a pork chop or a salmon steak. These meats are lower in fat and cholesterol but are just as flavorful as beef.
Limit your beef intake: Expand on the Meatless Monday movement and cut your beef intake in half. If you eat beef twice a week, try only once!
And if that doesn't satisfy...
Do a beef exchange with a friend: If you really can't kick the habit, make a deal with a carnivorous friend to offset each other's meat footprint. If you're craving a roast beef sandwich for lunch, ask your friend to go with a hearty veggie salad. If your friend is in the mood for spaghetti bolognese, offer to try the vegetable lasagna. Limiting each other's beef intake could be a good challenge, and will cut your combined imprint in half.