Loved this Wonkblog piece on what we have done to dairy cows through artificial selection:

If there were one thing Temple Grandin, who teaches animal science at Colorado State University, could change about the milk business, it would be the way the industry has messed with its cows.

“What they’ve done is basically the equivalent of taking a car, putting it in neutral, and then dropping a brick on the accelerator until it blows up,” said Grandin. “These cows are constantly in the red zone.”

The chart below shows the simultaneous fall in the number of milk cows and rise in the amount of milk each cow produces on average. There are almost 2 million fewer milk cows today than there were in 1980, but production has remained fairly stable. And guess who is shouldering the brunt of that load?

The answer, of course, is milk cows.

With bottom lines in mind, the industry has long pushed to get more out of its four-legged employees. For many years, that meant operational tweaks, such as changing barn design, altering what cows were fed and being fussy about things such as milking schedules. But more recently, it has meant screwing with the actual anatomy of the animals.

Holsteins, the majestic black and white cows that make up the vast majority of milk cows in the United States, don’t look like they used to. In fact, we have altered their genetic makeup by 22 percent since the 1970s, as Modern Farmernoted in 2014. Today’s cows are taller, heavier, have higher and larger udders, and tend to stand on differently shaped legs. [emphasis mine] And there’s a growing sense we have gone too far…

In many ways, Grandin is one of those advocates. A longtime dairy-industry expert, she divides producers into two categories: the progressives and the not progressives. The former, which she says account for about a third of the industry, have moved away from the practice of breeding “milking machines,” choosing to raise smaller cows that tend to be healthier, as well as productive over a longer period, and opting to feed their herds grass as often as possible. The latter, meanwhile, are driving up the efficiency numbers you see in the chart above, selecting for cows that tend to suffer from a number of adverse health outcomes.

1) This is just awful.  Yes, on some level any use of dairy cows is exploiting animals.  But we can do it in more or less humane ways and this is undoubtedly at the wrong end of that spectrum.  How about we pay a little more for a milk and have a little more decency in the lives of the cows.  Sounds like a more than reasonable trade-off.  (And the article makes a good case that it’s the long-term sensible thing to do as well).

2) I wish all the Cassandras who spend their time railing against perfectly healthy soybeans, etc., that have many benefits, but were created through genetic manipulation in a lab would pay more attention to the extreme genetic manipulation that happens every day through good old selective breeding practices.  I’m far more concerned by what we are doing to the cows (and chickens!) than what we are doing to corn and soybeans.

Where have all the environmentalists gone?

Check out the time series from Gallup:

Trend: Americans' Self-Identification as "an Environmentalist"

As you’d expect, this has been especially true among Republicans, but there’s been a solid drop among Democrats, too.

Trend: Americans' Self-Identification as "an Environmentalist," by Political Party

Interestingly, it is probably more so that the label “environmentalist” has come to disfavor, rather than the actual beliefs behind it.  Here’s the long-term GSS data on spending on the environment.


Though there’s been some decline since a 1990’s peak, we are still looking at a solid majority who thinks we are spending too little to protect the environment.  (Though, the anti-environmentalism among the GOP is presumably working to a modest degree when you see that the small number of those who think we spend too much has pretty much doubled).  Anyway, why the label has fallen out of favor is probably worth a good political science study.

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