A Mental Exercise: Cow Love

Sometimes, there are practical and rather mundane explanations for why people do the particular things they do.  Anthropologist Marvin Harris speculated that

 “Everyday consciousness owes its very existence to our developed capacity to deny the facts that explain its existence.”

 We don’t expect dreamers to explain their dreams no more than we should expect lifestyle participants to explain their lifestyles.  Some argue that the lifestyle participants’ explanation of their culture constitutes an “irreducible reality”.   They warn us that human consciousness should never be treated as an “object” and the scientific framework should never be applied to a study of lifestyle or culture.    The reason is because the various inequities and disasters of recent history are the result of too much “objectification.”  Objectification leads to a loss of “moral sensitivity” and thereby equates the quest for scientific knowledge with original sin.

However, nothing can be more absurd.  Hunger, war, sexism, torture, and exploitation have always occurred throughout history and prehistory – long before anyone got the idea to objectify human events.  This is a horribly wrong approach when considering culture.  A quest for knowledge cannot be original sin because we are still in our original state of ignorance. 

So when we examine a culture, we must do so in a way that explains the observations in terms of practical and mundane factors on lifestyles.  This leads me to a question that always bothered me.  What about all those cows the hungry peasants in India refuse to eat?  It is somehow comforting to us that in India spiritual ideas are more precious than life itself.  At the same time, we are saddened at the site of a ragged farmer starving himself alongside a big fat cow.  Westerners have a hard time believing there may be a practical or mundane reason thus the connotation, the sacred cow. 

In India, the cow it’s the mother of life and there is no greater sacrilege than killing a cow.  Many experts counter that cow worship is the cause of India’s hunger and poverty.  They have produced facts that show half the cattle could be regarded as a surplus and that there are thirty million unproductive cows.  Tourists have noted how the animals wander through the streets, browsing the markets, breaking into private gardens, etc.  Farmers regard the cows as members of the family, and they adorn them, pray for them and celebrate the births of new cows.  Ordinary American dairy cattle produce over 5,000 pounds while India’s zebu cows give no milk at all.  

The Hindus have considered Moslems to be cow-killers and this has been the subject of many blood communal riots aimed preventing the killing of cows and this keeps relations bitter between India and Pakistan.  Mohandas Gandhi was an ardent advocate and wanted a total ban on cow slaughter.  How do we explain such senseless and even suicidal cow love in a practical and mundane way?

A government report reveals that India has too many cows but too few oxen.  How can this be with so many cows?  Oxen and male water buffalo are the principal source of traction for plowing India’s fields.  There are only 80 million traction animals compared to 60 million farms and they need two per farm.  They could borrow from their neighbors but they have to coordinate between the monsoon rains so therefore they must identify the optimum moment to plow which is easy to miss.  The farmer needs his own pair of oxen to also pull his oxcart.  If a poor farmer loses his ox, he could lose his farm.  He would have to borrow money at high interest or move to the cities that are full of unemployed and homeless people.

A farmer who owns a cow owns a factory for making oxen.  This is a very good reason for him not to be too anxious to sell his cow for the slaughterhouse.  This might explain why they are willing to tolerate a cow that produces no milk.  If that’s the point, then it’s useless to compare the zebu cow to an American dairy cow.  They have different jobs.  It’s still hard to argue against the notion that the milk of the zebu cow could still be used to meet nutritional needs of starving people. 

When Indian farmers want milk they turn to the female water buffalo because she has longer lactation periods and yields more butterfat.  Male water buffalo are very useful when plowing flooded rice paddies but oxen are more useful for dry-field farming.  The Indian farmers use manure to fertilize the fields rather than tractors that they cannot afford.  The development of larger farms tends to virtually destroy the small family farm.  Development along this curve would result in widespread unemployment of displaced farmers.  This just couldn’t be good.

Because they relay on cheap animals rather than expensive tractors, these animals leave about 700 million tons of recoverable manure.  Half of this gets used for fertilizer and the other half is burned to provide heat for cooking.  India has only small reserves of coal and oil and is the victim of extensive deforestation so no fossil fuels can be considered practical substitutes for cow dung.  Most dishes are prepared with clarified butter known as “ghee” and cow dung is the preferred source of heat. 

Cow dung is also used as household flooring material.  Because it is so useful, it is carefully collected.  Village children follow the family cow around to collect its output.  The farmer prays that a barren and dry cow can be restored to full vigor by a favorable monsoon and thus she stands as a last desperate defense against the moneylenders.  Sometimes the prayers are answered and if not, the dung making continues at least.  Zebu can survive long periods with little food or water and are highly resistant to disease.  Zebu oxen work until they unable to breathe. 

These practices in India do not necessarily adversely affect human survival and well-being.  The farmer might sell his aged and decrepit animal for a few rupees or temporarily improve the family diet but in the long run it may benefit him.  The dietary improvement may be optimal but they have to remain adaptable to extreme conditions such as the recurrent failure of monsoon rains.  This taboo on slaughter and beef eating may be a product of natural selection.  During droughts and famines, they may be tempted to sell their livestock.  However, if they do, they may seal their doom for when the rains come, they would be unable to plow their fields.  This would be a much greater threat to aggregate welfare than any miscalculation of the usefulness of the animals. 

 It seems that the farmer would rather eat his cow than starve but he feels that he will starve if he does eat it. 

I understand these arguments however; there are other arguments that don’t hold up.  For instance, normally people would argue that it takes more land area to feed the cattle since the cattle eats a greater caloric value of plant food than the humans would.  Since the per capita calorie intake is already below minimum daily requirements, switching croplands to meat production could resulting in higher food prices and a further deterioration in the living standards for poor families, even those who would enjoy beef and make it an important part of their diet. 

However, I already wrote concerning the tourists observations that these cows walk the streets wondering about through traffic and everywhere.  The Ford Foundation estimated that less than 20 percent of the cattle’s food actually consists of humanly edible substances.  Most of this is fed to working oxen and water buffalo rather than to dry and barren cows.  In a study of West Bengal, Dr. Odend’hal discovered that there was no competition between cattle and humans for land and food supply. 

 “Basically, the cattle convert items of little direct human value into products of immediate utility.” 

The farmers let them wander during the day and they milk them at night so to the poor, the cow is a scavenger.  They eat rice straw, wheat bran, and rice husks.  To the rich, the cow is a robber.  If a cow stops producing the owner may decide to let it wander around until the police pick it up and bring it in.  When the cow recovers, the owner pays a small fine and returns it to his farm. 

Professor Alan Heston estimates that there are 30 million surplus cows.  The fodder and feed that these useless cattle would consume would go to keep milk and dung production at or above previous levels.  This could make their agriculture more efficient and improve the diets of a large number of the population.  The problem is that these cows would come from the poor, not the rich.  Getting rid of 30 million cows is the equivalent of getting rid of 150 million families and forcing them into the cities.  Therefore, it is not the religious taboo that is solely responsible for the situation but there are practical and mundane conditions that exist which must be accounted for.

The argument is that cow love is an active element in a complex and finely articulated order.  It allows them to maintain a low-energy ecosystem where there is little room for waste or indolence.  This is just a practical and mundane way to explain otherwise difficult observations.  I found it fascinating.


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Posted on December 10, 2008 at 1:00 am by Charles · Permalink
In: Populations

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