Liberal Use of Water

Big Pool

OK, this is my third and final post on the air and water around Liberal, Kansas.

Southwestern Kansas is pretty dry. It would not be profitable at all for raising crops like corn, if it were not for irrigation. Underneath that all that flat land is not only oil and natural gas, but a large reservoir of water known as the Ogallala Aquifer. It is an underground “lake” with a water volume equal to Lake Huron, stretching over eight states. Since heavy irrigation began in the 1940s, the water level has declined by about 100 feet. (See “Water Encyclopedia” here.) Water flows back into it at the rate of less than an inch per year, and much of that water is polluted.

All this water is being pumped out to grow corn. The corn is grown to feed the steers on the great feed lots that stretch for miles on end throughout Southwest Kansas, from Dodge to Liberal, and up to Garden City. Garden City, by the way, has one of the world’s largest public swimming pools, covering more than half a city block and holding 2.5 million gallons of water. (More here)

Author Michael Pollan described his breathtaking drive through Garden City in a radio interview on NPR (transcript here). His current book Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the corn and feedlot industry. (See his shorter article in the NY Times here.)

Cattle are not designed to eat corn. A couple years ago I undertook a research project, asking farmers and ranchers about a law in the Torah, “you shall not muzzle an ox when he is treading out the grain.” I was curious about how much grain an ox would eat; I thought it was a rather generous provision for the working oxen. The farmers, though, ignored my question. Their first response was, “it would make him sick. If a cow eats too much grain it will die.”

Feedlot management involves careful monitoring of cattle as they are put on grain to fatten them up. They are also put on antibiotics at this time. The corn has a marvelous effect on the meat; it fills it with the marbled fat that makes it so juicy, the same fat that clogs our arteries.

We’ve all heard that “red meat” is unhealthy. Actually it is grain-fed red meat that is killing us. Grass-fed, free range beef is actually good for our health. It is high in the good fatty acids (Omega 3 and Omega 6) and low in bad cholesterol. Grass-fed, free-range bison is even more healthy; it is like eating salmon.

A few months ago our daughter, on assignment for Mother Earth News drove across the southwest corner of Kansas on down to Phoenix. I ride a bicycle for enjoyment, for my health, and to reduce my dependence on fossil fuel. I had studied the map and was considering riding out west and crossing into Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico–all in one day.

I asked my daughter what she thought of this, and she said the foul air would choke me. That area is miles and miles of feedlots; cattle side by side up to their knees in mud and muck, making themselves and us sick on corn.

So this is what we are doing: We are using up the water in the underground lake, to grow corn, to feed to cattle, to produce heart-attack-causing beef. Meanwhile what little water trickles back in to the aquifer is contaminated with runoff from the feedlots, and the air is unfit to breathe.

If it were a matter of free enterprise and free market forces, that would be one thing. But the whole industry is fueled by government subsidies, the majority of which go to large multinational corporations. Is something wrong here?

Meanwhile, my brother has a few acres and raises a few head of cattle on natural grass pasture. He sends one or two a year to the butcher shop and keeps his arteries clean eating natural free-range beef. The meat is not quite as tender as corn-fed, but it has a full rich taste, and there are ways of cooking to make it tender.

What does all this have to do with faith? We have a stewardship, a responsibility, to take care of God’s creation, to leave it to our children better than we found it. Grazing cattle on the open range is a responsible use of the earth’s resources.

(just click the highlighted words if you missed Part I or Part II.)