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Even happy cows poop October 16, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Thousand Hills Cattle Company is huge on the Minneapolis organic/local/sustainable food scene. If you’ve been here and eaten any part of a cow at one of those restaurants whose menu lists where its food comes from, it was probably from Thousand Hills. The company distributes beef from Upper Midwest family farms which pasture their cattle for their entire lives, contrary to the conventional industrial practice of “finishing” them in confined feedlots. At a recent screening of the movie Fresh, the owner, Todd Churchill, gave a speech about why he’s such a proponent of keeping cows on pasture.

Todd extolled the many virtues of pastured beef for human health, animal welfare, and the environment. It’s hard to argue with his view that raising animals on pasture is better than keeping them in confinement, but one of his claims struck me as a bit disingenuous. “Who has heard,” he asked, “that you should be a vegetarian if you care about global warming?” Several people in the audience, including myself, raised their hands. “Well,” said Todd thoughtfully, “that’s true if you’re talking about industrial cattle production. But what’s the energy source for my farmers’ cattle?” An audience member dutifully raised his hand and called out: the sun. “Yes,” said Todd, “that’s right – we feed our cows on grass that uses the sun’s energy. We don’t fertilize and till grain. We use almost no tractors.“ So, the implication was, if you just stick to grass-fed beef you avoid all those nasty chemicals and pollutants that are cooking the earth. No need to give up those burgers.

Is it true that eating pastured beef is just as good, from a global warming perspective, as being a vegetarian? Well, if the aspects of beef production that cause global warming are the fertilizer and tractors that go into it, then eliminating them would make eating beef climate-friendly. If not, we have a problem.

Here’s the breakdown of the sources of livestock emissions from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.*

P10 16 09 for blog 

Houston, we have a problem. Turns out only about 4.5% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions come from fertilizers and on-farm fuel use (e.g., to run tractors). The biggest portion – over 35% – is due to deforestation and desertification, which happens when forest or other virgin land is cleared to provide space to graze animals. Now, to be fair to Todd, if the farmers he works with are using existing grassland rather than clear-cut forests to graze their cattle, they aren’t contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in that way. So add that to the savings from forgoing fertilizer and tractors and they are cutting emissions about 40% by raising cattle on grass.

But two other categories of emissions kind of smack you in the face when you look at that UN pie chart – the emissions from manure (pooping) and enteric fermentation (burping and farting). No, this isn’t the burping and farting that the guys on the tractors do while they’re bouncing along the prairie; this comes from the animals and as such is not eliminated in Todd’s world of happy cows on pasture. Again, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and shave 9% off because certain emissions happen when poop that’s been deposited on the ground gets leached or eroded away, and according to the UN that’s negligible for grassland. So Todd has saved 49% of emissions farming his way, which leaves 51% of livestock emissions still there, even in his relatively clean system. His cows may be happy, but they still poop. Score one point for the vegetarians.

*Pie chart is from UN FAO as quoted in McMichael, Powles, Butler, and Uauy, “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” The Lancet 370 (October 6, 2007): 1258. Information is for all livestock, not just cattle, but cattle are worse than average emitters of greenhouse gases. Therefore using these numbers understates their emissions.



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2. Jessica - October 19, 2009

I’m puzzled by your assertion here. You seem to see this as “all or nothing”. I think cutting emissions in half simply by going grass-fed is huge. If we converted our country from feedlot to pasture, aside from all the other benefits (ie health), we could cut emissions of our beef industry in half. I’ll take that.

Angelique - October 19, 2009

Thanks for the comment Jessica. I agree that cutting emissions in half makes grass-fed better than conventional beef. However, Todd from Thousand Hills went a lot further than that in his speech by suggesting that it is just as good, from a global warming perspective, as being a vegetarian. That does not seem warranted.

Also, if we converted all feedlot cattle to pastured, we might run into issues getting enough land for them all, which could lead to deforestation, another source of global warming.

Guillaume - October 19, 2009

I agree with Jessica. Every little bit helps, and changing to grass-fed beef should be an easy adjustment for people to make. Of course, you keep hearing the argument that grain-fed beef tastes better, but I think it’s just an easy excuse. Global warming or slightly less marbled beef – easy choice!

3. Kate - October 30, 2009

I am of the belief system that no only should we eat pasture grazed animals, but that we should also eat less meat, on the whole, as a country. As part of my meat csa in the twin cities my husband and I receive 10# of pasture raised meat per month that we store in our freezer. While we never eat all 10# in one month, we do eat out on occasion, so I would say each of us probably consumes about 8 or 10# of meat per month per person which is about 75# annually that we consume less than the average American of what is already the more environmentally friendlier option. Vegetarians are asking people go to all or none. I say we just make responsible and more healthy decisions to eat less meat that is raised naturally.

Angelique - October 30, 2009

Thanks for the comment Kate – I agree that eating less meat is the key. We can probably be responsible consumers without converting to vegetarianism. Question is, how much meat is too much?

4. cliveataylor - November 21, 2009

Have you taken into account what the poop gives back? Don’t forget wee, which I believe is more important to good soil. How does the grass grow and the land get fertilised without the livestock? Unless it could be used as arable, which much (most?) land can’t, then it would just turn back to wilderness surely? I sort of feel your maths stops too early in the calculation.

Angelique - November 22, 2009

Good point. The FAO stats this is based on do not quantify the impact of reclaiming nutrient-depleted soil, which does help the climate. There is a great article on this by a woman who helps run one of the biggest grass-fed ranches in the US at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/opinion/31niman.html?_r=1. I’m looking at some of the research she cites and will be writing about this in future posts!

One problem I foresee is, how do we know whether a grass-feeding farm is doing all the other things right – rebalancing the soil, rotational grazing etc. – and not, for examle, overgrazing pastures, which is bad for the climate? To be a truly conscientious meat-eater, the consumer will have to know a lot more than what can be expressed on a package label.

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