Rachel Laudan

Cattle as Food Processors

A thought-provoking post from Jayson Lusk on the common and on-the-face-of-it plausible claim that grain-eating uses far fewer resources/much less energy than meat-eating.  His counter:

I suspect only a very tiny fraction of the world’s caloric consumption comes from directly consuming the raw corn or soy seeds.  It takes energy to convert these seeds into an edible form – either through food processing or through animal feeding. So, what we want to compare is beef with other processed foods.  Otherwise we’re comparing apples and oranges (or in this case, corn and beef).

Yes, we don’t eat grains (nibbling on wheat quickly loses its charm).  And yes, converting corn into tortillas or wheat into bread consumes lots and lots of energy.  Let the cattle do it!

Though what I really want now are the numbers.  Anyone out there?  They must be available, with digging, for large-scale industrial grain processing.  And I’m still trying to find someone who knows how many calories a Mexican woman spent grinding tortillas five hours a day.


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6 thoughts on “Cattle as Food Processors

  1. Leni

    I don’t know the calorie count for grinding masa (I’ve done it and can verify that it is exhausting for the inexperienced) but It has been my experience that in most of tortilla eating Mexico even among the poor more and more tortillas are bought at the factory where they mechanically grind the prepared corn – even if the shop is only on the level of a mom and pop operation.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Agreed that it’s exhausting for the inexperienced, Leni. And even for the experienced, it’s heavy physical work over a number of hours. Twenty years ago a lot of Mexican women were still grinding. Now wherever there is electricity, there are small mills for making masa. A boon for Mexican women and something that has contributed enormously to Mexico’s growing prosperity.

  2. Mae

    I recently read Pilcher’s book “Que Vivan Los Tamales,” which I’m sure you know has a great deal about the labor of Mexican women and how tortilla making was automated, not for their benefit as much as to enable landlords to redirect their labor. It may not estimate the calories used, but it estimates other measures of the labor used and then freed.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Mae, thanks for reminding me of Pilcher’s book. The person who has published most on the labor of tortilla making is Arnold Bauer, an agricultural historian retired from UC Davis. I agree with his estimates that it took a woman five or six hours a day to grind for a family. Yikes. That needed to be automated. What a life.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Great story. Even if now eggs and chicken production are largely separated.

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