Cows are not the new coal — here’s why

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The United Nations COP26 global climate summit announced a commitment to cut 30 percent of global methane emissions by 2030, and as with any other major announcement about climate change, a torrent of strong opinions and misinformation has spread to identify the next biggest scapegoat — or in this case, cow.

The reason for climate-centered pandemonium is that beef and dairy cattle emit methane from the enteric digestion of feed they consume and the manure they create. The annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks Report, prepared by the EPA, states that 27 percent of methane emissions in the United States are derived solely from enteric fermentation by livestock; albeit, less than 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from crop and animal agriculture in the United States. Models estimate that the global warming potential of methane is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, in the short term — but methane and carbon dioxide emissions are approximately 10 percent and 80 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions respectively in the United States.

Yes, all sectors — including agriculture — need to reduce emissions, but a dangerous narrative has emerged, supported by the livestock investor network FAIRR Initiative, that “cows are the new coal.”

This is misleading and diverts our attention away from the discovery and application of meaningful solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the progression of climate change in the near and distant future. Here’s why:

Cattle are part of a natural biogenic carbon cycle, which is not the case for coal. Put simply, this means cows recycle carbon to the atmosphere that was and will again be absorbed by plants. Methane that is released by cattle burps enters our atmosphere, where it is transformed into carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is then used by plants to produce carbohydrates, and ultimately, cellulose. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber in the human diet, but cows and their microbiome have the means to digest this complex carbohydrate to support muscle (meat) and milk synthesis, which humans consume for nutrition and health.

If the global cattle population stays constant, no additional methane would enter the atmosphere after a decade. In fact, the world has maintained a steady population of cattle since at least 2010 — approximately 1 billion head. 

The scientific models that aim to estimate the aforementioned global warming potential of methane compare emissions at the point of emission but don’t account for the flow of carbon as a part of this natural carbon cycle. Therefore, we are likely overestimating the global warming potential of methane derived from cattle. 

Animal agriculture deserves our support because the meat and milk that cattle produce are nutrient-dense foods high in protein and key micronutrients such as B-vitamins, iron, and calcium. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 18 percent of global calories and 34 percent of global protein consumption are derived from animal-sourced foods. It is often overlooked that cattle produce these foods by consuming forages and grasses often grown on marginal land that is not suitable for the growth of human-edible crops. Indeed, the FAO study determined that 86 percent of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption, but the food they produce is. Cattle are also fed byproducts that are obtained from the human food supply chain — such as almond or soy hulls, or citrus pulp — that have little to no nutritive value for humans but when digested by cows create edible and nutritious food for us to enjoy. The use of these byproducts by cattle farming ensures that these feed ingredients don’t end up as food waste, an outcome that has the potential to generate more greenhouse gas emissions than simply feeding them to cattle.

Yet, it is often argued that the livestock industry isn’t making an effort to be sustainable. This is blatant or blissful ignorance.

The efficiency by which meat and milk are produced has increased dramatically over the past century. For instance, the number of dairy cattle has decreased from approximately 26 million cows in the 1940s to about 9 million today; but the industry has met the increasing demand for dairy, producing 114 billion more pounds of milk in 2021 than in 1940. This remarkable achievement was made by reducing the amount of feed, land, and water required to produce an equivalent amount of milk. Moreover, methane emissions and the carbon footprint to produce an equivalent amount of milk has dropped more than 50 percent. We should celebrate this achievement.

Stating that livestock industries are the new coal does not account for the value of animal-sourced food production for humanity, and it fails to recognize how animal agriculture has a proven record of working toward a sustainable future.

It is very likely that agricultural innovation will improve our ability to reduce and monitor enteric methane emissions from cattle, and it will represent a short-term remedy to slow climate change, but we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to have long-term impact.

So, let us lift up animal agriculture rather than break it down. Because if we don’t, we jeopardize our ability to feed the world and protect our planet.

Dr. Joseph W. McFadden is an associate professor of dairy cattle biology in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University. He studies dairy cattle nutrition, milk production, and the effects of diets on animal and human health. His research — including current research on cattle methane emissions — is funded by USDA, NSF, FFAR and industry.

Tags Cattle Climate change and agriculture cows Enteric fermentation Greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse gases Methane methane emissions Sustainable food system

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