Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?

Very likely, the only reason why one would have missed all the “commotion” around cow farts is to have been stranded on a desert island without any access to some telecom network. Who would have thought that those poor ruminants were actively busy suffocating us? Just in case anyone would doubt this is the case, some influential billionaires were ready to join the fight against animal protein and put their money to work in protein alternatives to save the world. Yeah, right. I will get back later on this with my views on the altruism of the one percent.

First things first. Cows have been blamed for climate change based on research. Actually, it is useful research, but like any research and statistics, it needs to be put in context. Here is a chart that shows the results of that research from Clark & Tilman, from the University of Minnesota.

On that chart, I have added two productions based on literature: Norwegian salmon fillet and Chinese aquaculture ponds. I did not put an emission number as it did not come from the same source and methodology as the Clark & Tilman research, but it is my best guess of where they would fit. My purpose here is to make the same point as the one I want to make on beef: there is a broad diversity of production systems and it is necessary to look at each of them on an individual basis.

The research results are an average of many different production systems, 742 in total for the entire research. The results are averages and that is a weakness because averages do not mean much if there is no mention of the standard deviation within the group. Before pointing fingers, they should analyze the variance between the various production systems for a particular type of food. Another weakness of their research is that it does not indicate which share of each link in the production and supply chain contributes to the environmental footprint. In the case of ruminants, where is the problem the largest? On the grasslands? In intensive fattening operations? In the logistics of meat? In the logistics of feed? And so on and so on. Several years ago, Brazilian beef producers were upset about a research showing that their footprint was much larger than the European Union’s, and they strongly disagreed. Yet, in the EU, most of the beef comes from the dairy herd (as you can see on the chart, the dairy footprint is much lower on average), the infrastructure is quite good and in particular, there is massive use of waterways, which have a much smaller carbon footprint than road transport by trucks, especially on sometimes terrible road conditions, on which there sometimes is massive loss of grains that fall off the trucks. Anyway, without getting into too many details, the bottom line of this story is that production and supply systems vary greatly between regions and those differences translate in differences in terms of environmental footprint. Another issue with the carbon footprint of beef from that study had also been pinpointed by another research from the Oxford Martin Programme at Oxford University that also showed that methane has not the same lifespan and long-term effect as CO2.

Back to GHG emissions of agricultural products, overall conclusion here are

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions and especially do not generalized
  2. Go beyond average numbers and look at the individual production system
  3. Learn from the best to improve production and supply systems
  4. Identify which links of the chain are the weakest ones in terms of greenhouse gasses and fix the weaknesses
  5. For governments, subsidize the systems that are the cleanest and tax (or possibly ban) the dirtiest

Another aspect to look at when it comes to ruminants is cellulose. There is plenty of cellulose in the world and the thing is that we, humans, do not have the enzyme (cellulase) to break down and metabolize it. Ruminants can break down cellulose thanks to the micro-organisms they have in their rumen, and this is how we can indirectly eat grass in the form of milk and meat provided by ruminants. This is all the more important as the world area of grasslands is twice the size of the world area of arable land. Actually there is between 3 and 4 times as much grassland acreage as arable land, but many of such grasslands barely can sustain animal farming so with twice the size of arable land, I give a safe estimate of what is usable. The beauty of using ruminants on grasslands, besides milk and meat, is that grazing is actually an amazingly circular economy (very trendy term nowadays and that should appeal) system: the animals eat the grass, and poop their excrements on the pastures and thus fertilizing and regenerating them. Another interesting fact to know is that grasslands actually fix more carbon on Earth than forests do, so proper grassland management is actually a great tool to mitigate climate change on a global basis. Sorry to disagree with all the anti-cow hype but ruminants are very useful. In quite a few of my past articles, I have mentioned the concept of externalities, or in other words the long-term costs (negative externalities) or benefits (positive externalities). Ruminants on grasslands generate quite some positive externalities and that should be taken in the conversation. Ruminants eat grass. That is a fact of Nature, and too bad for our societies which try desperately to make us lose our connection with Nature and even our own biology by transforming us mostly in passive thought-controlled not questioning anything consuming units. Ruminants eat grass and that is why I see grass-fed beef as a winner in the future of animal protein, not in volume but in value both nutritional and environmental, and actually from a farmer’s income point of view, too. Another statistic that everyone should have in mind in the discussion about livestock is that the UN FAO estimates at 1.7 billion (yes billion with a B) the number of people whose livelihoods depend on livestock.

So, from what I just wrote, do we want to remove two thirds of agricultural land from our potential from food production and do we take away the livelihoods of another 20% of all people on Earth so that hipsters from San Francisco and opportunistic billionaires can cash in on a very artificial hype? Food production used to be production-driven, then we started to convince ourselves that we changed it into market-driven (which has been mostly marketing-driven really) and now we are in a situation of making (some) food products investor-driven, which is not really about solving large-scale problems, but a mix of production-driven marketing-driven to play on people’s concerns about health and environment to convince them to buy new products and boost the share price of start-ups. We haven’t changed anything really: we still have the same volume-driven approach of always more that we know is not sustainable. Beware the pendulum will swing back. Let people choose what they want to eat. Don’t preach because most of the preaching, like all preaching is about control. I am an omnivore but I also cook and enjoy many vegetarian recipes. I do not believe that I should eat meat at every meal or every day for that matter. I also, and that may be because I can cook quite well, I do not need to get my plant-based servings from a food processing plant. I also believe that cooking and home economics, along with agriculture, should be taught in school, because they are essential for true sustainability. Moreover, since there is sexual education in school, it only seems normal that these matters belong in everyone’s curriculum.

I would say beware of social media as it is not a reliable source of information. It is only a digital form of the good old human habit of gossiping, and as such can spread all sorts of misinformation, just like the pre-digital era gossiping used to do. The difference is the number of people that can be reached.

So, to conclude, I would like to pinpoint a couple of things:

  1. Animal farming has indeed a higher carbon footprint than crops
  2. Therefore, it has to be carried out in a sustainable manner and what is not sustainable must be eliminated
  3. Therefore, animal protein production and supply systems will have to change in the future and they will change
  4. Meat is a valuable food and source of nutrients, but it is not for recreational everyday gluttony. After all, animal had to give their lives for us to have meat, and the concept of sacrifice should be present in our minds
  5. And to finish, a bit of a joke but not quite it either: there are indeed cow farts but there is also quite a bit of bullsh*t about the topic.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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