Are cows causing climate change?

A cow grazes in a field.

There’s a lot we don’t know about human caused climate change. Scientists are uncovering new aspects to this growing and complex problem every day, from earthworms to unexpected puffin die offs.

One thing we know for certain is that humans are in fact causing climate change, and cows could be a big part of that.

A cow grazes in a field.

Cows are ruminants, animals with four chambers in their stomach designed to help them break down and digest grass. A byproduct of this is that they also burp and fart, producing methane gasses that are even more damaging to the environment than co2.

When I first read about this, the first question that popped into my mind was, “Well if that’s true, wouldn’t we have seen a measurable drop in co2 when white settlers exterminated all the bison?” They’re ruminants too after all.

It turns out, the impact of agriculture goes far beyond burps and farts, and instead goes back to our practices at farming from the ground up. Everything from the huge carbon footprint caused by clearing forests for grazing in places such as Brazil, to the lakes of feces from intensive farming that give off copious amounts of greenhouse gases, has a heavy impact on the environment.

Beef is particularly bad because cows are so much larger than other livestock, such as pigs, chickens, and turkeys. They need a lot more land and water per calorie than other animals, and that’s not taking into account the methane they produce.

Intensive farming practices have a spectacularly bad effect on the planet, but the problem isn’t just beef itself, it’s the unethical and unsustainable methods in which we farm nearly all of our food.

Poor grazing practices, poor manure management, the intensive farming methods of the crops needed to feed the cattle, all lead to its significant environmental impact.

A cow rests in the shade.

What can we do for the environment?

Right now the best solution is to eat less meat in general, and as little beef as possible. It’s not realistic to recommend everyone go vegan, and frankly may not even be the best choice for the environment. (Wild boar for example, should be on everyone’s table in Texas.) Still, environmental issues aside, do we really need to be eating 222 pounds of meat per year per person? That’s the equivalent of 800 quarter pounders almost. There’s such a thing as too much.

Agriculture is making positive strides in terms of finding a sustainable route to raising beef, with methane reducing supplements such as chicory and algae, and regenerative agriculture. Unfortunately, the average meat offered up in your grocery store, and even at your local butcher, is probably not yet farmed by these methods.

When you do buy red meat, ask questions, and thoroughly research what you’re eating. A dollar towards a sustainably raised beef patty is better than a dollar towards an intensively grown one.

We have a long way to go before we truly know how to clean up our agriculture, but there are many practical steps we can take that are just common sense. Eat less meat, don’t waste the meat you do buy, and buy from ranchers who are actively working toward a lighter footprint.

Helpful Resources:

Carbon Footprint of Beef Cattle (2012)
Livestock and Climate Change (2017)
Mitigating Greenhouse Gas and Ammonia Emissions from Beef Cattle Feedlot Production (2018)

Author: Xiuhcoati

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