Republicans have seized on the deaths of thousands of cattle in a Kansas heat wave as the latest proof of a baseless conspiracy theory that saboteurs ranging from the mega-wealthy to the government are out to destroy the national food supply.
That hoax has been circulating on the right for months, but received new energy after thousands of cattle in Kansas died in a June heatwave in which temperatures topped 104 degrees. A viral video that showed what appeared to be hundreds of dead cattle was cited by as proof that someone—the Biden administration, liberal billionaires, or an unnamed elite cabal—was behind the deaths.
For ranchers, the cattles’ deaths were not mysterious. A spokeswoman for the Kansas Livestock Association told PBS that the cows died from “heat stress” after a sudden 20-degree temperature spike. Rather than accept that the cattle were killed by the heat—and the prospect that climate change will bring similar mass-death incidents—some Republicans became convinced that a shadowy force was behind the dead cattle.
Tennessee House candidate Robby Starbuck claimed he had unnamed sources who insisted that the cows could not have been killed by the heat.
“They did not die of extreme heat,” Starbuck tweeted. “I talked to multiple ranchers since I saw this video (one from Kansas) and they all say this needs to be investigated ASAP to get to the bottom of this because there’s no way heat caused 10,000+ cattle to drop dead. This is not normal.”
Theories about the cows’ deaths also proliferated on Telegram, the social media network that’s become a haven for far-right figures. Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, an inventor and leading figure in the 2020 election-denial movement, boosted another user’s post suggesting that Bill Gates was behind the deaths. In a Telegram message, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes speculated that the cattle deaths were part of a plot to “make us so hungry” that Americans would revolt, giving the government a chance to institute a state of emergency.
Few of the conspiracy theorists were as willing as Pulitzer or McInnes to name any culprit for the cow-deaths. Right-wing comedian Steven Crowder embraced the kind of free-floating skepticism that’s become prominent on the MAGA right, tweeting Tuesday that he was “a little suspicious about 2K cows just suddenly dropping dead in Kansas due to heat stress.”
Is anyone else a little suspicious about 2K cows just suddenly dropping dead in Kansas due to heat stress?
— Steven Crowder (@scrowder) June 21, 2022
The sudden cattle deaths have been incorporated into a growing narrative on the right that the country’s food supply is at risk due to a shadowy sabotage network. In April, conservatives seized on a series of fires and other incidents at food-processing plants to suggest that a mysterious group of arsonists is set on undermining the food supply. In reality, however, several of the incidents were years-old, while others didn’t actually occur near the food plants.
The conspiracy theories about the cow die-off have even made it to Congress. In a speech on the House floor, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) said Americans have “every right to be skeptical” about the food-supply incidents, including the cattle deaths and the baby formula shortage. Cawthorn described the incidents as a “seemly unexplainable series of food industry accidents” being ignored by the media.
“Does no one care that children are starving you and your colleagues feast at Le Diplomate?” Cawthorn said, referring to the French restaurant popular with Washington politicos.