Thursday, June 23, 2011

Are Cows Green?

Beef and the environment: working together more than you thought.

My love for cattle and agriculture was a common topic with my University of Alberta residence floor friends this year on 5 Henday. Everyone knew I loved cows. And that I flew and drove all over to go do cow-related things. But I'm not entirely sure they understood why.

Here's a recent Facebook wall post I received from one of my residence friends from Vancouver, Rob.
" It occurs to me that I've never heard you out when it comes to cows. I assume they're bad for the environment from all the hipster/soy/lefty stuff I read but maybe I'm wrong? I'd enjoy hearing you out over some free range organic chicken in the future."
First, I laughed at this post. Clearly, Rob's a funny guy. But he also raises an important issue. The "hipster/soy/lefty stuff" he refers to are sources that show beef and agriculture in a negative light due to their environmental impact.

Often, they are largely opinion based. They also make sense to consumer. Cows make methane, methane is bad for Earth, therefore cows are bad and we should stop eating them. Logical sequence, right? Not quite.

Myth #1: Cows are destroying the ozone layer.
Fact: The contribution by cattle to global warming that may occur in the next 50-100 years is a little less than 2% (PubMed). Methane is a byproduct of ruminant digestion, which cattle, bison, sheep, and goats carry out. Ruminant digestion makes it possible for cattle to convert food not fit for human consumption, like grasses and rejected malting barley. Cattle are responsible for about 14% of global methane emissions (EPA), but that number is declining. The more efficient cattle can be raised, the less methane they produce.

Steers chowing down at XTC Herefords.

Myth #2: Modern beef cattle are far worse for the environment than those raised decades ago.
Fact: Advancements to cattle production, such as how fast they grow, how much weight they gain, and how much time they need to reach market weight are accomplished through genetic selection and a lot of scientific research. Most consumers think the more modified the cow, the worse they are for the environment. 

Actually, it works the opposite way. A Washington State University study found that a pound of beef raised in 2007 used 20 percent less feed, 30 percent less land, 14 percent less water and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy than in 1977, while also generating 18 percent fewer carbon emissions. (Explore Beef- Stewardship). What this means is that fewer resources and a smaller carbon footprint are being used to give consumers more beef. In the early 1900's, it took between three to five years to produce an 843 pound beef carcass in Western Canada. Today, it takes less than 24 months.(Canadian Beef and the Environment)

Myth #3: Grass fed cattle emit far less methane.
"Grain-fed cattle produce 38% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than grass-fed cattle." -John Robbins

Grassfed cattle are cited in many sources as to be higher methane producers, including this Pro-Grassfed article by John Robbins. More efficient cattle will produce less methane in their lifetime. Keep in mind, there are many studies out there about methane emissions and cattle. This is one study. If you have a conflicting one, I'd love to see it and compare.

Myth #4: Cattle don't do anything good for the environment.
Grazing cattle on non-arable land (land that cannot produce crops or be developed), like coulees and rolling hills, is a practise that ensures the land used to raise cattle is not taking land away from other purposes. If we did not have cattle on this land eating the grass and walking on it, we would have large erosion and plant decay problems. Plants need to have constant regrowth in order to stay rooted in the soil and keep the soil from blowing away.

So, what's your point?

The environmental impact of cattle does exist, but farmers and ranchers are working hard to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly each day. It is in the best interest of livestock producers to get cattle to market in a short time using the least input, which in turn produces less gas, uses less fuel, water and other natural resources.

I believe that when taken together, the facts prove that not raising cattle would cause greater environmental harm than raising them for meat.

What do you think?


  1. Awesome myth busting Rosie!

  2. Nice post to get the real facts out there.

  3. Thanks for reading. The more educated people can be about our side of the story, the better!