I've Got Beef with the NY Times (Part 2)
This is Part 2 of our series responding to the NY Times' latest beef hit-piece "Save the Planet, Put Down the Hamburger"
You can read Part 1 here if you missed it.
So today I want to examine the underlying study, and the general trend of "beef is destroying the planet" silliness trickling out of think tanks every couple months.
Let's take it from the top.
Cattle absolutely do produce greenhouse gases, including:
- Carbon Dioxide (from breathing)
- Methane (from the fermentation process in their gut when they break down grasses)
Typically these studies focus on methane ("cow burps") because it has a high warming potential.
But the problem is, the researchers make the same three mistakes over and over again...
Mistake 1: Forgetting that not all carbon emissions are the same
Our planet has a carbon cycle that is humming along 24/7.
Grass, trees and other plants draw down carbon, storing it above and below ground. When they die or get disrupted (by cows, mowing, wild fires, etc.) a portion of that carbon gets released back into the air.
This is happening with or without cattle. What the cattle do is cycle that carbon-based plant matter.
They turn some of it into fertilizer (manure/urine). They trample some of it directly into contact with the soil. And they utilize some of it for themselves, which ultimately creates bioavailable protein/fat that we harvest for people to eat.
In that chemical reaction some of it is released into the air as methane.
But the point is, they aren't adding NEW carbon to the system, just participating in cycling it. This is a well-honed, very natural and sustainable system, entirely different than man-made emissions.
**You may have heard that in specific grazing situations, they can actually cause the grass to sequester more carbon than they release. This is true, but needs a lot of context (I'll get into it tomorrow).
Mistake 2: Pretending that livestock would just disappear seamlessly
As cute as it is for a researcher to pretend to be Thanos and make half of all livestock disappear on a spreadsheet...
It leaves some open questions, like:
WHAT THE HELL WOULD HAPPEN TO ALL THAT LAND?
As far as I can tell If you took ruminant animals out of the system, there would be three options.
1) Nothing would move in and grassy areas would slowly be overtaken by brush and trees. Contrary to conventional wisdom, trees are not excellent at storing carbon, because they don't store much below ground. And in many areas where there are currently lots of cows, this would massively increase the risk of wildfires.
2) People would move in and find some other use for that land, which (based on the entire recent history of humanity) would probably be building more stuff or tilling it up to plant crops for our new plant-based diets!
3) Nature would move in, and fill the void with the same ruminant animals that were already there before the cows (bison, deer, elk, etc.)
The one thing that I can guarantee WOULD NOT happen is that the land would conveniently disappear along with its pesky tendency to cycle carbon!
Mistake 3: Ignoring complexity
Nature is complicated.
I pity the poor data scientist trying to represent a complex, infinite-variable biological system in Microsoft Excel.
It seems like a huge pain.
So I get WHY they want to simplify everything as much as possible.
I just also reserve the right to not listen to them when they openly state that they took the worst case scenario of industrial, rainforest-clearing agriculture and don't believe farming methods make any difference.
Or when they take measurements in controlled environments, and ignore that cows exist in nature. (Did you know there are soil-bacteria that eat methane as it comes out of a cows mouth?).
TLDR - Cows themselves aren't emitting net-new carbon. They are participating in a natural carbon cycle that includes plants, soil microbes, and atmospheric gases.
Compare that to fossil fuel emissions - where we extract stable carbon and inject it into the system by burning it. (Agriculture has plenty of these emissions too, but that's not what the studies focus on).
If you think about it for even one second, you immediately see the glaring difference....
Which is why the emissions data you see on the news (likening cows to cars for instance) is not comparing apples to apples.
It's actually extremely misleading.
And when the lead researcher claims “cutting 4 ounces of beef per day is like taking 8 million cars off the road [in the UK]” I am left wondering....
Does he seriously believe that?
Does he not know that each generation of cows can be fed by grass which continuously grows and recycles the same carbon?
Or that those cars would need to burn newly extracted and refined gas?
Who are these people?
Has anyone ever actually met one of these data scientists?
Or do they just exist within an extra-dimensional echo chamber where no one knows how grass works?
When did we decide that everything needs to be reduced down to emissions and sequestration?
When did main-stream environmentalism lose sight of the broader, complex web that makes up a "healthy" ecosystem and planet?
Why are cows and our diets being judged by the same scorecard as fracking rigs, coal plants and private jets?
The last part, the reduction of our environmental and agricultural discourse into carbon data points (and the unfortunate role regenerative farmers play in all this) is what we'll discuss in Part 3.