Don't Say Cows Eat Grass

You might know perfectly well that cows eat grass, but don't say so out loud if you want a job at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
By Keith Goetzman
December 2010/January 2011
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Defenders of conventional agriculture might not approve, but it's better for the animal and the land when cows eat grass.

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Cows eat grass. You wouldn’t think the statement was in any way open to dispute, but at Iowa State University, a highly qualified job applicant who had the temerity to voice this simple biological fact was ejected from consideration for a position in charge of a sustainable agriculture program. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

“Among those who study sustainability, saying cows should eat grass is not a controversial statement. But saying so in Iowa — which grows more corn than any other state — is likely to attract attention.”

Well, it sure did. Ricardo Salvador is a well-respected sustainable agriculture expert and a former professor at Iowa State — and a natural choice, many observers thought, to lead the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture as its new director. As finalist for the position, however, he didn’t get the post even when the top candidate turned it down. Apparently, his cow comment branded him a radical.

According to the article in The Chronicle, the remark came 37 minutes into his on-campus presentation. While discussing a research project in New York, he mentioned meat being “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on land suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”

If this were a TV game show, a loud buzzer would have gone off. Because apparently he was supposed to say cows should eat corn. Even if that’s not natural or sustainable, it’s simply how things are done in Iowa, a state built on big agriculture.

Corn allows cows to get fatter faster and be ready for slaughter sooner. But there are downsides, including the fact that cows have trouble digesting corn and must be fed antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill. What’s more, beef from corn-fed cows tends to have more fat.

But the fear of this truth is so great that The Chronicle couldn’t even get Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of Iowa State’s agriculture school, to go anywhere near it. When asked whether cows evolved to eat grass, she replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.”

Sheesh. Consider, for a moment, the man for whom the Leopold Center is named, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold. In 1939, in the essay “A Biotic View of Land,” he wrote, “Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains. The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains.”

Sorry, Mr. Leopold, but I’m going to cut you off right there before you say anything more inflammatory. Some university officials are not going to be happy about this.

Post a comment below.


J. Wagner
11/30/2010 6:00:42 PM
I used to teach at ISU as well and know Dr. Salvador to be a smart, principled, sensible and kind human being (fairly unique among senior academic faculty). He is an obvious choice for head of the Leopold Center and his non-selection will be yet another reason I tell the poor slob who has to call me an ask for donations that I will not be giving money to that place.

t brandt
11/10/2010 8:52:43 PM
They'll change their tune when the price of petroleum based fuels skyrockets over the next few years. Pasture fed cattle require less fuel input to raise than crops and yield beef healthier for us. The pastures mimic nature much more closely than single species croplands, so pastures are ultimately better for the environment. Grass fed cattle are not only leaner but also have more carotene and a healthier omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid ratio.

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