Cats, Cows and Climate Change — Understanding Agriculture and Fossil Fuel Consumption

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Much ballyhoo is made of cow farts in recent political proposals, reflecting the ever-growing disconnect of modern consumers from their food supply. Perhaps America needs more farmer politicians, but that would not prevent the dangerous lack of awareness that urbanization and the death of rural farming communities has caused. Cow farts and cat crap are a good place to stimulate the city mice to “ruminate” more deeply over the true life of the country mouse … or cow.

Industrial agriculture offers one of the most important areas for humans to reduce fossil fuel consumption. But the focus on cows — and meat in general — is largely misplaced. Cow methane is a direct product of human consumption, yet there is a world of difference in energy consumption (and animal welfare, and meat quality) between factory-raised beef and grass-fed meat from a small farm; between foreign-raised beef versus down-the-road; between cows pastured on grass 10 months per year in the south versus seven months indoors in cold climates. Reducing all beef production to “beef is bad” reflects a common oversimplification of complex interactions by so-called environmental activists.

Underthinking about personal responsibility for environmental degradation explains the existential friction between the energy consumed to raise cows for human food, versus America’s unquestioned passion for pets. It is estimated that our nation’s 90 million dogs and 73 million cats consume the equivalent of some 64 million tons of CO2 annually in meat consumption, devouring 25% of all American meat production (enough to feed 26 million American humans!) while producing 5.1 million tons of feces. Cow plops are an invaluable eco-asset as regenerative fertilizer, as opposed to the millions of tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers spread annually. This cannot be said for cat waste: nor can doggy doo-doo be converted to energy in biogas digesters, as can cow flatulence. Cows create both inputs and outputs that pets don’t.

Since virtually all cow emissions are a product of food production, the guilt for bovine gas falls on humans. It would be shocking to suggest Fi-Fi the poodle is expendable, yet Americans are being told to blame Bessie the cow instead. In any case, the solutions proposed to the perceived problem are as disjointed and preposterous as the complaints against cows.

Most climate change rants condemn rich people for eating more beef than the poor, which may be true, but as the world’s impoverished grow wealthier, they too want burgers. Blaming the wealthy for the need to survive is ideologically handy but destructive — it will do zero to reduce emissions or consumption.

There is no shortage of those claiming this is a crisis that can only be tackled by compelling a shift in appetites. Says one writer:

With demand for beef and dairy expected to soar, feeding the world — and staying within a safe carbon budget — will be impossible without major shifts in consumption patterns. … Tim Searchinger, author of another report this year advocating for lower animal protein consumption … says that any land devoted to food could store more carbon if left as forest or restored to its native vegetation. So every acre of land is critical for carbon storage, given growing global food demands. “We need to have land available to reforest. We need to avoid clearing land. Every time we consume less beef, that provides — at the very least — the opportunity to use less land,” he said. “Each of us has the power to avoid that land-clearing. So if I don’t eat beef, the next guy can eat more without clearing land.”

Spoken like a true academic. Another proposal is to shift the human diet from beef to beans, which we are told will reduce as much as 74% of the CO2 emitted by cows, while freeing up 42% of American cropland:

While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, the “beans for beef” scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts.

Theoretical fantasies often collide with reality — the world’s poor are already sick of beans! (It’s an old decree by disconnected elites: “Let them eat beans!”) Who is to eat these beans, and how much will government compel their consumption in lieu of hamburgers at Fourth of July picnics, in order to spare the planet more CO2?

But wait — it’s not CO2 (agriculture is not identified as a major source of CO2 emissions), it’s methane. That is a very different gas, which many argue is being falsely used as a CO2 equivalent where cows are concerned. As one observer explained, this “bias” is employed “in favor of intensive fossil-fuel dependent sectors, such as pig and poultry factory farms, and against ruminant livestock herders reliant on biomass. … Nearly all the mainstream media and the public remain unaware of what is in effect a calumny against ruminant livestock farmers.”

A farmer who has been keeping the same number of cattle on their land for several decades will not be increasing global warming significantly because the methane will be disappearing from the atmosphere almost as fast as it is being added. The same applies to a nation, or indeed the world, if its total cattle population remains stable over time.

Back to cats and dogs. They don’t produce food: cows do. But instead of eliminating cats and dogs (an inconvenient conversation for climate change activists — no wonder they bully cows and gaslight farmers!), the real issue here is what every farmer understands: moving things and reducing cost inputs.

Farming is all about moving things, preferably efficiently: moving feed, moving water, moving manure and milk, moving cows. The modern industrial food supply has become “cheap” solely via a short-lived technology and energy boom that is neither sustainable nor healthy. This system is dependent on intensive fossil fuel inputs in production, and even more in packaging, shipping and distribution. The person buying beans from China may consume far more energy than the Vermont diner eating a grass-fed burger raised by a neighbor — the ultimate in solar-powered food production.

Oversimplifying agricultural issues (and climate measurements) is simple for academics sipping industrial beverages and nibbling preserved factory foods in cellophane or styrofoam packaging. Their very perspective is reductionist, disconnected, and thus fruitless. Instead of screaming about impoverished farmers clearing trees to grow food in the Amazon, perhaps these geniuses could calculate how many head of cattle could be reared on America’s lawns, currently mowed with inefficient fossil-fuel engines, strewn with chemicals, and exceeding in geographical area the state of Texas. How many dogs and cats could Americans feed by raising cows on that land, instead of creating yet more sterile, polluting lawns? (It is much easier to target cows.)

The “methane footprint” of all the world’s cows could be reduced, as could all CO2 and methane generation, if humans focused on supporting local regenerative agriculture and “mindful” personal consumption, rather than preach to the world that others should eat beans, target cows for elimination, or abandon productive farmland back to carbon-sequestering forests that increase fire risk. Nowhere are the Amazon’s rainforests being more rapidly desecrated than by American consumption, disconnected as it is from even a remote awareness of itself. (Imagine if all the beef from Americans’ dog and cat food were instead shipped to South America in exchange for land preservation.)

If they are to make true “progress” against environmental degradation, polluting humans must think more introspectively about where they are creating toxins and burning energy. Consumers must examine the conspicuous logs in their own eyes rather than pick at the twigs in cows’ doe-eyed innocence. Land stewardship is not something accomplished in laboratories or legislatures. And if that stewardship is abandoned, the city mice and bureaucrats will be the first to eat beans. Or Fido.