By John Klar
The world’s cows have been wrongly maligned by ignorant climate-change zealots. Livestock are integral to sustainable agriculture. The carbon-crime charges leveled against our benevolent bovines are fatuous. But moreover, properly managed cows are a key contributor to soil health and nutrient management.
The attack on “cow farts” is well publicized, as would-be luminaries such as AOC and Bill Gates joined the herd-like anti-cow cacophony. An ominous (and highly inaccurate) “documentary” dubbed “Cowspiracy” was embraced as revelatory. Yet the carbon-focused obsession that drove this errant attack on cows reveals a great deal, both politically and agriculturally.
First, those farts: 95% of methane from cows is excreted by eructation — burps, not farts. But regardless of which cow orifice from which the most methane escapes, the gas-focus frenzy ignores multiple aspects of human interaction with cows, while histrionically exaggerating cow contributions to pollution. Cows offer the best return on carbon investment.
The cow fart/purp contribution
In a typical example of cowphobic absurdity, one site proclaims “Farting cows are waging a war against mankind’s noses…and habitat.” Harmless cows are then scapegoated for mankind’s ills:
Cow farts, or as others colloquially call them, bovine emissions, comprise a significant part of an existential threat to humans. That threat is known as climate change and it’s driven by a range of human activities. Raising livestock for meat is one of those activities that often goes under the radar, yet it accounts for a whopping 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Five reasons are then listed “why you should care about cow farts, cow burps, and livestock in general when it comes to the conversation on climate change,” including “cow farts are so nasty they cause acid rain.” Cows are then stigmatized as “the largest carbon footprint per pound,” the carbon-crowd equivalent of “a V12 Hummer with flamethrowers mounted on the sides”:
Naturally, the cows are the most land-intensive compared to other livestock: they are much bigger, eat more and produce more waste…. Beef production takes 28 times more land to produce than chicken or pork, and 160 times more land compared to staple crops like wheat or rice…. While rising seas and industrial smokestacks may be the first images that pop into your head when you hear the phrase “global warming,” don’t forget the cows
Blaming cows for acid rain (an industrial manufacturing problem that did not exist when we had WAY more cows) is bizarrely paradoxical. And all those supposed negatives that cows comprise such a large impact on land area and food supply become positives when manure is properly “weighed” in the environmental balance (discussed below).
Back to that cow-methane bogeyman. Animal scientist Sara Place sums it up:
Research shows that removing all livestock and poultry from the U.S. alone would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.36 percent. Specifically, cattle farming in the United States is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable in the world, she says. In the last 40 years, the U.S. cattle herd has shrunk by one-third, yet U.S. farmers are producing more beef today than they did in the 1970s, Place notes…. [M]ethane, which some critics say is the larger issue for cattle farming, is a much more potent gas for trapping heat. But it’s also one that decays in 10 years…. So once a cattle farm has been around for 10 years (and many have been around for generations), there are no new increases in methane emissions…. And herd sizes decreasing by two-thirds means methane emissions are better than steady: they have dropped over the years.
Conclusion: as to methane, the entire attack on cows is a laughable boondoggle, if not a deliberate red herring.
The cow poop contribution
In isolating gaseous emissions, cow-hating extremists avoid addressing the numerous solid contributions supplied by cow manure (water is another factor, not addressed here). The game-changer in human food production was the advent of modern technology, including fossil fuels. Mechanization; the combustion engine; chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; genetic selection and modification — all of these exponentially increased food production, but also created new problems.
American farmers planted 91.7 million acres of corn in 2019, shedding at least 5 tons of topsoil per acre. Cows are the best source to replace soil, to slow or reverse erosion, and contribute biomass. This was emphasized in a December 2016 Obama Administration study:
Soil is often viewed as “just dirt,” and the general public rarely hears of the importance of healthy soil or soil ecosystem services, but in fact, it is one of three pillars—along with water and air—of the Earth’s capacity to support human life. That this precious resource is underappreciated is due in part to an increasingly urbanized society that separates people from soils and the services they provide…. [I]t is not possible to rely on natural soil formation alone to make up for the high rates of soil loss in agricultural and other soils.
America’s food system is dependent on fossil fuels not only for machinery and transportation, but for fertilization. Fertilizer factories produce huge amounts of methane pollution, and global reliance on fossil fuels to produce fertilizer has steadily skyrocketed. Thus by advocating to displace ALL manure and fingering cows as polluters, Bill Gates, AOC and their ilk strive to make the food supply even moredependent on fossil fuels for food production. How do they propose to counter the consequent acceleratederosion, or reinstill living organisms into the soil?
Chemical fertilizers do not improve biomass; manure does. Chemicals do not increase soil mass, or slow erosion: cow manure does:
Biomass must be properly managed for the soil biological community to survive. Poor … biomass management … can negatively affect soil carbon, water retention, structure, and biological communities, generally leading to lower productivity in soils and an increase in overland flow and water erosion.
Food production will plummet, and millions will starve, without healthy soils. Those who target cows unwittingly increase pollution and erosion, due to widespread urban/suburban ignorance of basic agricultural practices. Bill Gates urges humanity to urbanize, and when discussing “how big of a problem bovine flatulence is” stated that “[Cows] leak natural gas out both the front and the back. … People have to understand the breadth of innovation necessary to combat climate change.”
A necessary breadth of comprehension is similarly required. “Natural gas” from the ground (extracted mechanically to manufacture fertilizers) is not “natural gas” from a bovine belly, producing soil-building manure rich in microflora and nutrients. Bill Gates discusses the carbon footprint of synthetic meat: he has not called for synthetic manure to replace the vital soil-building contribution of the cows he and AOC shamelessly villainize.
Politicizing cow farts in the name of “saving the planet” instead supports industrial fossil fuel applications in agriculture and demonstrates complete ignorance of sustainable agricultural practices. Raising a false alarm at cows’ methane production while ignoring their contributions to soil health presents a stark contrast to positions in the renewable energy field, wherein progressives advocate for solar panels and electric cars while ignoring the substantial carbon and pollution costs inherent in their production and disposal.
Selective thinking? Or just human flatulence?
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and the former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.