Will beef always be for dinner?

FARGO, N.D. -- In the 1980s, the Wendy's restaurant chain asked a memorable question, "Where's the Beef?" Thirty years later, a small minority of Americans are asking a different question, with a twist -- "Why is there beef?"...

Mikkel Pates

FARGO, N.D. -- In the 1980s, the Wendy's restaurant chain asked a memorable question, "Where's the Beef?" Thirty years later, a small minority of Americans are asking a different question, with a twist -- "Why is there beef?"

I believe a U.S. animal agriculture industry will continue to exist for a long time, but that it oddly must struggle for moral high ground with a small, vocal, urban audience who sees stockmen and scientists as abusers of animals.

It seems clear that animal rights and animal welfare groups have an increasing voice in farm policy, even in North Dakota and South Dakota. These groups have no shortage of money and passion. They have become experts in the "ballot initiative" process. They go directly to voters to pass laws that legislatures would not. Twenty-four states have the ballot initiative, including North Dakota.

The most important of these groups is the Humane Society of the United States. The HSUS has annual revenues of more than $160 million. The HSUS has some sincere, committed local member-volunteers who launched an anti-cruelty ballot initiative on Nov. 6 in North Dakota that would have made it a felony to mistreat certain "companion" animals. Livestock champions and their allies -- hyper-sensitive about HSUS involvement -- beat back the ballot initiative that would have put horses in a "companion" category and out of the "livestock" category.

The subtext of the HSUS efforts are that animals are like "slaves" -- suffering at the hands of unfeeling masters and for the benefit of uncaring meat eaters. Meat has become a civil rights issue, even if it is not about people.


Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- PETA -- and the Animal Liberation Organization, work toward a world in which people eat only plants. PETA would stop hunting and fishing. The groups are against using animals for research -- even to cure deadly or debilitating human diseases.

Recently I interviewed Gerald Stokka, a veterinarian in a newly-created position of "livestock stewardship" scientist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo. Stokka talked about a "slow trickle" in anti-livestock philosophy.

"No one believes it initially, but then it is picked up in grade schools and eventually finds its way to the university and ultimately into cultural mores," Stokka says.

One of Stokka's primary jobs at NDSU is to examine the changing "philosophy" of animal agriculture -- and to share what he learns with audiences in the state and beyond.

The traditional philosophy -- strongest in rural parts of the country -- has its roots in Judeo/Christian beliefs that still are strong here. Man's dominion over animals comes from Genesis I, verses 26 and 28. Man should have dominion over the "fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth," the scripture says.

Stokka says he thinks about a new rationale for meat -- a modern philosophy. Beef cattle spend part of their lives living on forage crops from land that isn't suited for human food crops, he says. Beef cattle make this grass into "highly palatable, nutrient-dense, healthy food for human consumption," he says with satisfaction.

So how's that for a slogan? "Beef -- It's logical, scientific and for dinner."

Compare that with the passion of an Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's co-founder and president. The 63-year-old Newkirk famously has said that when she dies, she'll donate her body to PETA. The group can turn her carcass into meat and leather -- for a public relations tool against animal agriculture.


"There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights," Newkirk said. "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals. Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we'd be against it."

Stokka has his work cut out for him.

Editor's Note: Mikkel Pates welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at 714 Park Drive S., Fargo, N.D. 58103. Email him at or phone him at 701-297-6869. Pates is a staff writer for Agweek.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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