The Ruminant Problem
The stormy clouds of climate change are rumbling overhead, and humanity is scrambling to solve the puzzle before it puts George RR Martin’s final book in jeopardy.
There are critics that say we’re already past the point of no return. But a big chunk of the globe is now aware of the threat and ready to mount some sort of defence.
Even better, a significant minority have managed to locate the culprits that are driving doomsday. The cattle in their masses are cutting down rainforests, producing toxic gases, draining the water supply, and chomping down grass until only deserts remain.
Those cows are an unsustainable food source, and are a downright menace to the environment. We don’t even have to take into consideration the unspeakable things they do to your arteries and MTOR pathway.
So while we may not have a chance, we can give it our best shot by cancelling the cows. It’s not like we haven’t done it before. We’ve already run the gauntlet of identifying a planet-ending threat and purging them out of existence.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, back in an age that spanned 99% of our existence, humans walked a land teeming with giant creatures known as the megafauna. There were at least a billion of them, treading and snapping every brave tree they came across, turning vast swathes of the planet into a barren grass wasteland.
They too produced that toxic methane that threatened to cook the atmosphere. Palaeolithic humans may not have had the technology to calculate the carbon footprint of woolly mammoths, but they clearly had enough intuition to figure out that they had an emerging crisis on their hands.
This was likely the landmark point at which humans first considered the concept of killing, having initially lived on fruits and vegetables, much like their ape cousins. With the megafauna threat looming at their doorstep, they began to devise ingenious weapons of mass destruction. Clubs, spears, axes, even crude versions of crossbows were invented as team Homo prepared to punch way above their weight class.
What followed was a daring expedition, as humans poured out of Africa to confront the megafauna. They split up into different groups, fanning out over the new continents. What followed was a bloodbath. The megafauna had the advantage of size, and numbers, but team Homo made up the difference with sharp sticks and unrivalled chemistry.
One continent at a time, the megafauna fell before the surge of humanity. It was a long war, spanning thousands of years, but eventually, the megafauna were cut down to numbers that could no longer threaten the planet. Our ancestors had clawed the world back from the precipice.
The trees grew back and reclaimed much of their land from the steppe. The atmosphere didn’t reach the dreaded boiling point. Our ancestors downed their tools of destruction, and set about a new life as farmers.
For a while, there was peace. Now with the rise of the cow, one of the few surviving megafauna, we have to get ready to do it all over again.
The Ruminant Defence
Don’t worry if some of this is reading a bit off. There isn’t any evidence that cavemen used crossbows. But we don’t have evidence to conclusively say they didn’t.
Just like we don’t have evidence to conclusively say that the megafauna weren’t on the verge of scrambling the globe. Or at least, I don’t think we do.
But in the spirit of scientific discourse and the whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ doctrine, let’s entertain the idea that all this is wrong.
Let’s imagine that the megafauna of the palaeolithic weren’t planet killers
That our ancestors weren’t attempting to avert climate change, they were just hungry
That the ecosystem was in a tight balance until humans broke the landscape
That, as surviving megafauna, cows aren’t responsible for hastening the apocalypse
It’s time to mount the defence of our cloven-hooved friend, and preserve the memories of the giant rule-roosting herbivores that came and went over prehistory.
We’ll start with the big one.
1. Cow Farts Aren’t Responsible For Global Warming
Ruminants do have a habit of belching methane, which in turn is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating up the atmosphere. But this phenomenon has been repeating over millions of years, and we’ve yet to reach a breaking point. The thing is, methane from cows makes up a natural part of the carbon cycle.
- Carbon stored in grasslands
- Cow eats grass
- Methane created as a byproduct of digestion
- Cow belches (not farts) methane into the atmosphere
- Methane is broken down into water and carbon dioxide
- Returning to the grasslands through rain and photosynthesis
- Just as mother planet intended. The effect of ruminants on atmosphere carbon is neutral at worst.
So why do people hate on cow burps so much? As it turns out, data is wide open for manipulation. Practically all the fancy infographics stem from a study done in 2006 by the Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations (FAO), which alleged that livestock produced 18% of all greenhouse (GHG) emissions.
This was undoubtedly a number significant enough to cause some steak apprehension. But unfortunately, the data had been wrangled. The 18% number had been produced by looking at the entire life cycle of the industry.
- Feed production
- Transport of said feed
- Processing of meat
- Transport to stores
Other sectors, like transportation, weren’t afforded the same thoroughness. For them, it was just a sum of direct emissions. When the FAO later did a report of livestock’s direct emissions, it tallied at 5% of total emissions.
So not only is the cow fart conspiracy based on bad data, it’s also taken out of the context of its place in the natural carbon cycle. Ruminants have been at this methane game for millions of years. They’re not breaking the system.
Pulling up carbon from the bedrock on the other hand, is unprecedented, and it’s only been happening for the last century. Fossil fuels present the greater threat, by far.
2. They Don’t Take Up Land From Crops
Meatless Mondays strike again with another targetted strike on livestock production. As they state, 75% of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock farming and growing feed for said livestock. With their reasoning, cows and company use valuable land that could be put towards sustainable food production. In other words, carbs.
And it turns out to be another episode of misrepresented data, as the monday campaigners prey on the fact that 99% of people won’t ever make it past the headline. Here’s the caveat that puts a wrench in the argument.
The majority of the world’s agricultural land simply isn’t suitable for anything other than growing grass. So unless we rediscover the biology that enabled us to be fibervores, this isn’t the direction by which we can go about saving the planet.
Using the UK as an example, 65% of the agricultural land is only available for grazing. You only have to take a quick glance at the countryside to see why. Steep slopes, too many rocks, and thin soil. Not a place to be putting down a neat cornfield.
3. They Don’t Steal Our Food
It’s not just the land use that’s an issue for steak deniers. In the Midwest, 38% of corn production and 70% of the soy crop goes towards animal feed. That’s a considerable amount that could be repurposed to feeding the human population. Why don’t we just cut out the middle man and go straight for the delicious and nutritious plants?
Unfortunately this argument should have been pronounced dead on arrival.
For one, the protein content of steak and soy aren’t in the same league. A 100g serving of steak provides 29g protein, while an equivalent amount of soy racked up just 12g. That’s without even addressing the shortcomings of a scattered amino acid profile and accompanying phytoestrogens. Steak is simply a better product.
As for the matter of animal feed, there’s the slight issue that 86% of that feed is effectively inedible for humans.
- 46% grass & leaves
- 19% crop residues
- 8% fodder crops
- 5% oil seed cakes
- 5% by-products
- 3% other non-edibles
And that’s a giant slice of the ruminant selling point. Thanks to the transformative powers of the rumen, cows are tremendous nutrient-upcyclers. They take foods that we have no business digesting, and turn it into prime bio-available nutrition. That’s not a problem. It’s the solution.
4. They Use Up Way Too Much Water
Beef has the largest water footprint of all foods, with a quarter pound hamburger taking up 425 gallons worth to produce.
Except a giant chunk, around 92%, of that water bill is being taken from rainfall.
Rain, which would be falling on the ground in the same spot, even if the cow never existed. A slightly different tale to the water being chewed up through almonds, where one pound of delicious phytates takes up 528 gallons, the majority of which is extracted from the ground and nearby lakes.
Green water – Rainfall
Blue water – Ground water, rivers, and lakes
This claim that should have been pronounced dead on arrival. It also misses the fact that grazing improves the soil’s water holding capacity, preventing chemical runoff into nearby rivers. If anything, it’s a net positive, and is probably another decoy planted by Big Food to drag attention from the fact that crop irrigation takes up 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
5. Driving Deforestation
The decline of the world’s tropical rainforests are a pressing issue when discussing climate change, since they provide a giant carbon sink, as well as that precious oxygen. In particular, the vast Amazon has been taking a beating over the last few years, with raging fires drawing global attention.
Meatless Monday allege that cattle are responsible for 80% of that deforestation, with most of the rest going to soy, which is then used as animal feed. What they miss, is that cattle don’t precipitate the cutting down of old forests. They are used as part of a cycle on existing farmland, which usually winds up with soy production.
- Forests are cleared
- Cattles graze and fertilise the land
- Making way for soy crops
If anything, the issue isn’t the cattle, it’s the lack of incentive against clearing forests for agriculture. In fact, if they were just maintained as grasslands, it wouldn’t be such an issue, since grasslands are more reliable at storing carbon than forests.
6. It’s Unsustainable
With nearly 8 million people packing this tiny globe, and more on the way, it’s easy to see why sustainability is such a hot-button topic. We’re struggling to feed the planet as it is, and we need a solution. Soon.
Plant-based advocates have been jumping at the bit to sell their vision for sustainable food production. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty green. With meat either kept to a minimum, or cut out altogether. Given that meat has been sold to us as the grand hog of water and land, winding it down would be a fair strategy.
Luckily, we’ve already addressed why those claims don’t have a root to stand on. But there’s more. The world’s topsoil, the bedrock for 95% of food production, has been projected to run out by 2060. That feels a more immediate threat than even climate change. Our topsoil is getting ground down the most delicate of layers, one harvest at a time.
Monocropping doesn’t help its case. Neither does deforestation, or excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and other toxic chemicals.
Ruminants, on the other hand, are fantastic for soil health. By grazing and pooping, they stimulate the production of deep-rooted grasses, and allow the soil-dwelling organisms to flourish.
When we add in the fact that we can’t really do much else with the majority of agricultural lands, then our sustainable future will start to look very beefy.
7. At Least We Can Agree Grain-Fed Beef Is Terrible
The aforementioned nugget on grassland’s carbon storing ability is part of why regenerative agriculture has become the poster child for meat-based living. That, and the whole issue with the world’s topsoil running out by the end of the century.
For such reasons, plant-based meats often get compared to meat produced through grass-fed grass-finished, regeneratively-raised beef. And the latter typically stacks up well.
Then there’s the ugly brother, grain-finished conventional beef. The one we don’t like to talk about, due to the unsavoury reputation of feedlots and grains. Many meat-based advocates will still hold their hands up and admit that conventional beef is an inferior product that isn’t helping the planet.
Those people would be wrong.
Conventional beef isn’t an inferior product. In some contexts, it might even be better, through its use of resources. The fact remains that much of that grain feed is inedible for humans, and the cattle act as nutrient upcyclers. But that’s not all of it.
Grain-finished beef requires 56.3% of the animals, 24.8% of the water, 55.3% of the land and 71.4% of the fossil fuel energy needed to produce the same amount of grass-finished beef.
In the spirit of sustainability and feeding the world, we need a good dose of the supermarket beef that elitist steak-eaters scrunch their nose at.
The mammoths weren’t ushering in the apocalypse way back in 10,000 BC, and neither are the 21st century cows. In fact, the plant-based advocates have it completely backward. Cows are the antidote to our prospects of annihilation.
- They are tremendous nutrient-upcyclers
- They provide the best use of agricultural resources
- They allow the topsoil to flourish
- They provide great value no matter why you buy them
- And most importantly, they’ll let you get through life without having to sample a beyond burger.