An all-time favorite movie line (The Missouri Breaks), uttered by Jack Nicholson leaning over Marlon Brando, who is starting up from sleep: “Do you know why you woke up? I just cut your throat.” That is the way Plainview, Texas, woke up the other day to some bitter truths, and a shortened life. The food industry giant Cargill on February 1 closed the Plainview beef processing plant that employed 2,300 people, ten per cent of the town’s entire population, representing nearly half the town’s families. The exodus from Plainview (Jimmy Dean’s hometown) has begun, and the town will probably soon be a ghost. But who, exactly, cut its throat?
As a suspect, you gotta like Cargill, standing there with blood on its knife. But Cargill says wait a minute, it wasn’t us: “…severe drought across the U.S., as well as other factors, have caused a decrease in the overall size of the U.S. cowherd and decreases in the feeder cattle supply.” That’s what Cargill told Beef Magazine, that there were too few cattle coming into the plant t keep it open. So. It was the drought.
That would make it an Act of God, like the one that caused the Dust Bowl. Except that the Dust Bowl — the blowing away of an entire region’s topsoil — was not caused by the drought, but by over-cultivation of marginal land. Which was, in turn, a response to exceptionally high prices being paid for wheat.
It seems reasonable, then, to look at the cattle ranchers. Did they overgraze their marginal, drought-stricken High Plains land — Plainview is between Lubbock and Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle — and bring on their own collapse? In a word, no. Industrial beef cattle don’t spend much of their lives on pasture, they live mostly in feedlots where they are force-fed corn (a food that is alien to grazing animals evolved to digest grass, and tends to make them sick). The “other factors” alluded to by Cargill included, prominently, the high price of corn — so high that feedlots had to reduce the number of cattle they were feeding. According to the New York Times, there are fewer cattle in the state of Texas today than there were in 1967.
So it was the drought, after all? Well, there is still one other “other factor.” The federal government still requires that all gasoline used as fuel contain 10 per cent ethanol. It was the government’s way of “doing something” to begin replacing fossil fuels with renewables, and not incidentally to stimulate a whole new industry for one of its favorite clients, Big Agriculture. Overnight, the US became the world’s leading producer of ethanol, 14 billion gallons a year. Last year, according to CNN, over 40% of the corn harvest was earmarked for ethanol production (even as ethanol distillers were going out of business because high gasoline prices and a slow recovery from recession were depressing demand for their product).
Let’s review: the artificially high demand for corn-as-fuel, mandated by government to help corn growers, has jacked up corn prices to the point that the beef industry is shutting down. What’s the point of making a fortune on your corn, or your corn futures, if you can’t go out and buy a steak? (Another consequence, not unintended but one nobody involved gives a crap about, is that commodity food prices are so high that people around the world are starving.) It’s taken awhile to get here, but can we say it’s the government — no, wait, even better yet Obama — who slit Plainview’s throat?
What we have here, now, is metaphor fatigue. Plainview did not get its throat cut, rather it is succumbing to a progressive, degenerative disease called industrialism, which has provided Americans a century of comparatively luxurious living by using a credit card issued by Mother Nature. So far, Mother has required only minimum monthly payments.
Not any more. Plainview just woke up. Now the rest of us need to follow suit. Or. to paraphrase another Jack Nicholson line — can we handle the truth?