The Geography of Beef Essay

I have decided to write a historical comparison of the geographical dispersion of beef (cattle). The paper will begin with a historical look at beef, touching on its global production patterns and origin. Cattle, or cows, are a member of the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae[1]. They are raised as livestock for meat termed as beef and veal, dairy products, leather and for use as draught animals. In some countries, such as India, they are subject to religious ceremonies and respect.

It is impossible to talk about beef and its success as a food ingredient, without relating the story of the animal itself, providing the reasons cattle have become so widespread. This common global dispersion of cattle further facilitates the potential consumption of beef on a mass scale. The word cattle did not originate as a name for the animal; it actually derives from the Latin word “caput,” or head, and originally referred to a unit of livestock, or one head. The word is also closely related to “chattel,” a unit of property, and to the word “capital” in the sense of property. Cattle were originally identified as three separate species.

They are: Bos taurus, or European cattle, which includes similar types from Africa and Asia; Bos indicus, also known as the zebu; and the extinct Bos primigenius, known alternatively as aurochs. The auroch itself is the most important of the three, though now extinct, because it is the ancestor of both the zebu and of European cattle. There are further classifications made by the complicating ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu, but also with other species such as yaks, banteng, gaur, and bison.

Aurochs, wild cattle, had been hunted in ancient times which we can attest to cave paintings that have been left behind for us[2]. They were worshipped long before their domestication, and domestication itself may have been inspired by some religious motivation. As part of fertility cults, cattle would become associated with the gods themselves and become prominent figures in many primitive religions[3]. Aurochs were widely distributed in temperate parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa. The last aurochs were believed to have been killed by poachers in Poland around AD 1630[4].

It is probable that cattle were first domesticated to become cattle around 6000 BC in southwest Asia and India[5], while the earliest remains of domesticated cattle comes from modern day Turkey dated at 6400 BC[6]. Cattle were domesticated out of cattle subspecies that had previously diverged[7]. Cattle occupy a unique place in human history. They can be considered one of the oldest forms of wealth. Their ability to provide meat, dairy and labor while reproducing themselves and eating nothing but grass has made them particularly interesting to man throughout the past millennia.

The labor of the ox, or castrated male, made possible the plowing of fields around 3000 BC, which would have a profound effect on agriculture in general[8]. However, not all characteristics of cattle have been positive for mankind. Many diseases came originally from cattle, such as measles, tuberculosis and smallpox[9]. The uses for cattle other than for food, means that they are not normally eaten in many societies. In parts of Africa, where cattle became a symbol of wealth, they were used for currency, which still is apparent in dowries today.

In some areas of Africa, cattle are used for the consumption of their milk and blood as opposed to their meat. India is the particularly unique case where cattle are sacred to Hindus, and it is said that a pious Hindu would rather die of starvation than kill a cow. It is possible that cattle were valuable as a source of traction and in providing milk that there developed an early prohibition on killing them. Later, the taboo may have been reinforced by the invasion and foreign rule by cattle-eating foreigners, Muslims and then the British[10].

In Hinduism, the cow is said to be holy and for that reason should not be eaten. The importance of the cow is highlighted by the fact that a regional holiday called Mattu Pongal, Cow Pongal in Tamil, exists which is akin to a bovine thanksgiving day. In fact a divine cow named Kamadhenu is considered to be the mother of all Hindu Gods. As such, India is overpopulated with cattle and nearly one-sixth of the world cattle population can be found in India, many freely roaming the streets[11]. They provide milk, the bullocks are the principle source of traction and dung is used for cooking oil.

Though the animal is not popularly consumed as beef, certain lower class Hindus, “untouchables,” do eat beef and take their hides. Cattle are also eaten and sold for meat by Moslem Indians. In Portugal, Spain and some Latin American countries, bulls are used in the sport of bullfighting. A similar sport named Jallikattu is seen in south India. Other sports like Bull riding are part of the Rodeo, especially in North America. In Latin America, Australia and western North America, cattle are grazed on large tracts of rangeland called ranchos, ranches or stations.

Beef, though common now in most societies around the world, did take time to catch on in parts of the world where its consumption has become commonplace. In 500 BC Darius the Persian king was forced to indulge in beef discreetly in a country where beef was seldom eaten. There was an absence of beef from the Roman due in large part to what seems to have been merely a matter of taste. Up to the Middle Ages the butchers meal, such as beef, was an exception to the norm[i], while in many countries where the animal was valuable for its milk or draught labor it was rarely slaughtered unless of no other valuable any longer.

Columbus brought his own livestock from Spain and successfully bred pigs, cattle, horses, sheep and goats[12]. Domestic cattle production rapidly grew in the Americas, notably with the growth of the United States and the famous images of the cowboy attending to a herd of cattle. Beef itself has long been a British favorite, has traveled the entire world with British imperialism and commerce. The use of cattle and consumption of beef had previously expanded on a large scale with the imperialism and commerce of the Islamic empires. Beef is an expensive meat when considering cost of feeding the animals.

It has been calculated that eighty percent of all grain produced in the United States is fed to animals, most of which goes toward, first-and-foremost as food in the modern day, which has led to their introduction into many parts of the world where they are not well adapted, such as the semiarid scrub region of the western United States. Though cattle still cannot be raised in parts of Africa, because of parasites such as the tsetse flies, the original reason why it did not spread to all of Africa prior to the modern era. It is estimated that there are 1. 3 billion head of cattle in the world today[13], found everywhere in the world.

The global diffusion of cattle has been marked. It is an extremely valuable food source and is an integral part to many diets, having seen its consumption grow with the rapid expansion of the Christian European and Asian Islamic empires that today account for the cultural foundation of the majority of the world population. Even when not raised outright for consumption, cattle can be found in large numbers around the world such as in India and parts of Africa, and may still be eaten there. Cattle have become one of the most common large mammals found around the world, and beef one of the most common foods.