cow farts

Dispelling the myths of beef…taking the bull by the horns!

Cattle have been scapegoated (scape-cowed) as the root of all agricultural and healthcare evils for more than half a century. Ask your circle of friends which food is most responsible for society’s downfall, and they’d probably say Bessie the cow. Progressive acquaintances often say to me apologetically, “I eat meat occasionally,” but quickly follow up with the asterisk, “just not beef.” 

Beef has become ground zero for what’s wrong with the planet and our American diet.

But if you really break down the facts, cows, and especially grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, are really getting a bad rap. What if a new old school of thought was turning everything on its head? What if beef, and more specifically 100% grass-fed beef, might not only be pardoned for its apocalyptic potential, but be  considered part of the solution to reversing global climate change through sustainable, regenerative agriculture.

Got your attention?

Let’s Start with the Common Myths about Beef

#1 Cow farts are killing the ozone layer and causing climate change.

#2 McDonald’s is chopping down all the Brazilian rainforests for its Big Macs.

#3 American cattle live in the worst conditions of any domesticated animal, living out their lives in “Cowshwitz” feedlots.

#4 Red meat and beef specifically are the leading cause of cardiovascular disease

Sound about right?

So let’s focus on Myth #1 today, especially because it has “fart” in the title.

#1 Cow farts are killing the ozone layer and causing climate change.

How many of you have heard that cow farts are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to global warming. Ok, I can’t actually see your hands, but I’ll assume some of you have heard this story, or maybe have read the headlines from Forbes and The New York Times. So let’s start with a science lesson.

Cows produce methane, maybe the most dangerous green house gas, although it doesn’t damage the Ozone Layer, but rather traps infrared, which heats up the planet. Methane is a byproduct of a cow’s digestive system, which begins with the rumen—the first of four chambers in a bovine stomach. The rumen conducts nothing less than vegetable alchemy. It ferments and breaks down grass—which is otherwise worthless cellulose—into energy-giving carbohydrate. Cows are so good at turning grass into sugar that they can easily grow to 1,500 lbs. on lawn clippings alone. You can learn more about cows “chewing their cud” here.

The perceived problem is when cows start burping and farting said methane into the atmosphere. Spend ten minutes in a field with a herd of cattle, and you’ll see, hear, and smell this scatological reality. In fact, cows produce between 70-120kgs of methane a year, which brings up the more interesting question, “How do you weigh gas.” But I digress….Multiply that number by the number of cows on the planet (some 1.5 billion), and you can see how things start to snowball. Now take that big number, and couple it with a few well-intentioned researchers and environmentalists who start plugging it into fancy equations and we start to quantitatively paint a huge target on cows as the culprit for climate change. Guilty as charged. Right?

But wait, there is more to this story….

 Methane Isn’t Just Cow Farts! Although livestock are significant contributors to growing methane levels, the data show that recent spikes in farm animal-produced methane come from the growing use of liquefied manure storage lagoons (yikes!). These poop ponds are the result of CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations run by companies like Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield, which factory farm hundreds of millions of pigs and chickens every year. A covert video from 2012 showed that storing manure in open air pools is not only dangerous for water supplies and human health, but it also attracts methane-producing bacteria blooms, which puts tons of methane into the atmosphere. However, unlike confined pigs and chickens, pasture-raised cows don’t make manure lagoons. If fact, for more of their lives, cows disperse their droppings in open fields. This manure dries out and is absorbed into the soil before most methane-producing bacteria can chow down on it.

Veggies make more methane than cows. Ruminants (another name for cows and other cud-chewers) produce less than 10% of all agriculture-based methane. That number seems even less significant when you consider fruits and vegetables are responsible for something like 70% of man-made methane production. Rice production alone is responsible for 29 percent of all human-generated methane on the plant—including human farts by the way. These numbers are backed up with lots of footnotes by vegetarian, environmental lawyer, turned grass-fed beef rancher Nicollete Hahn Niman in her book, Defending Beef. You should definitely read that book if this blog hasn’t put you to sleep yet.

More cows doesn’t mean more methane. There are a lot more cows in American than there were 100 years ago. But, when you look at the entire domesticated grazing animal population farting across the plains today, there are far fewer ruminants in the 21st Century than there were before World War I. How is that possible? Thank Henry Ford. With the advent of mass-produced cars and tractors, the work animals of the 19th century (horses, oxen, mules, donkeys) have all but disappeared. If you include non-domesticated ruminants like bison, elk, pronghorn and deer that roamed freely across the Great Plains until the mid 1800s, North America is supporting far fewer grass-eating animals today, than at any time in the last 50,000 years. Fewer animals = fewer methane producing farts.

To summarize what we’ve learned :

There are fewer wild and domesticated farters on the planet today than before Neanderthals were living in caves, check! Rice production and factory-farmed pork and chicken create more methane than cows ever could, check!

So what’s the punch line? You should probably reduce your sushi, fried chicken and bacon intake before you pass up that steak.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog when I address “Dispelling the Myths of Beef Part 2: My Big Mac Ate My Rainforest”




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