The big news in today’s NYTimes dining section is that beef prices, especially the top grades like prime and choice, are skyrocketing as supplies plunge. According to the article by Florence Fabricant, the per pound price for steers ready to slaughter (lovely) increased from 83 cents in April ‘06 to 98 cents today, and the percentage of beef graded as prime has dropped from 2% to possibly as low as 0.5%. While some fluctuation in price and availability for high quality ingredients is normal, the factors which have led to this particular run seem to boil down to one thing: energy costs. The journey from skinny cow to juicy steak requires two inputs (for our purposes) - food, to make the cow grow, and gasoline, to transport the meat to your local supermarket or restaurant. Big cows with lots of fatty marbling consume a hell of a lot of corn to get that way, and their tremendous girth requires a lot of fuel to move around.
Back in the day, farmers had cheap feed, and slaughterhouses had cheap oil. Now, with the ethanol market booming, everybody has expensive corn. Corn prices have increased so much that cows are now being slaughtered younger - before their beef becomes really tasty - to save the trouble of feeding them and transporting them at a higher weight. Next time you’re at a steakhouse and your prime rib is scrawny and $70, you’ll know why. (Actually, for the time being, steakhouses are mostly eating the costs and cutting back on reservations rather than quality, but that compromise is ultimately untenable).
Our solution? Methane! Yup, cows produce a vile amount of methane, currently warming the atmosphere at an even faster rate than carbon dioxide (by volume). Wily scientists are already busy coming up with ways to harness the tremendous output of natural gas on America’s pastures. One day, we hope that cows are transported to meat packing plants and your plate in vehicles powered by fuel derived from the cows’ own farts. Ah, the elegance of technological progress.
[Photo: Audubon Magazine]