In defence of cow farts: Livestock emissions aren’t about to destroy the world, researcher says
|National Post 25 May 2018 at 10:58|
Thousands of academics are gathering in Regina for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences this week. They will present papers on everything from the new cultural dynamic of apologism to why Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible talks like a man. In its Oh, The Humanities! series , the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.
Despite their reputation, flatulent cows aren’t capable of destroying the world, an environmental politics professor argues in forthcoming research paper. But still, livestock are saddled with an outsized share of the blame for climate change. And if that misunderstanding persists, and pushes policymakers to force a societal shift from meat-eating, it could lead to disaster, says Ryan Katz-Rosene at the University of Ottawa’s school of political studies.
The idea that eating meat is bad for the environment is a drastic oversimplification of an incredibly complex subject, born from a 2006 study that suggested livestock production was as bad as the transportation sector, counting for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, Katz-Rosene said in an interview. There were several problems with the 18 percent figure, he said, but it still managed to brand livestock as one of the villains in the war on climate change.
“I’m worried about the types of unexpected outcomes we might see if we start to go too far down a path of that simplistic narrative,” said Katz-Rosene, whose wife runs a small-scale cattle and sheep farm in Quebec.
“To say, ‘We need to phase out animal agriculture’ … what are all the implications of that? I think they’re potentially disastrous.”
He’s concerned that new suggestions for government policy changes — including a meat tax and, more radically, the abolition of the meat industry – are based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between livestock and climate change. In a meatless world, Katz-Rosene sees “luscious pasture” best suited for grazing cattle instead being tilled for crops, churning up the soil and releasing the carbon captured within it into the atmosphere. He sees a world without heaps of manure, forcing a greater reliance on synthetic fertilizer that requires fossil fuels to produce. And he sees industrial scale production of plant-based proteins to make up for the missing meat.
“You’re essentially going to look at a shift towards greater amounts of large-scale mono-cropped soy,” he said, “and that is an ecological disaster.”
In his research, to be presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, Katz-Rosene lays out all the ways the cow farts have been misunderstood. First, it’s more about cow belches than farts, he said. More importantly, he argues the study blaming livestock for 18 percent of the world’s emission – since downgraded to 14 percent – is flawed. The figure isn’t solely based on the methane emitted through enteric fermentation (the delightful scientific term for passing gas). At least half of the emissions counted in that study come from the industrial production of animal feed, not the animals themselves. Even without a livestock industry, those emissions would still exist, they would just come from producing more plant-based protein for humans instead of feed for animals, Katz-Rosene said.
The number also overestimates the methane actually coming from livestock, since it didn’t take into account the carbon removed from the atmosphere by the plants they eat. Flatulence, Katz-Rosene said, is an essential part of the cycling of carbon: A plant sequesters carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis; a cow eats the plant and breaks it down, then passes it back into the atmosphere through gas or manure. Katz-Rosene argues it’s inaccurate to count the carbon released in the process, but not the carbon sequestered.
He’s quick to note that livestock emissions are a serious problem. In fact he advocates for reducing meat consumption. But, he said, it’s more an issue of massive industrial feedlots than the cows themselves.
“The problem isn’t livestock, the problem is management,” he said.
At feedlots, the livestock feed is produced industrially rather than naturally. The cows don’t graze, fertilizing the soil with their manure as they go. They are fed crops that have been produced using synthetic fertilizers and heavy machinery, trucked from farm to feedlot. There’s fossil fuels burned at every stage, he said.
By tweaking the system, rather than destroying it, he says it’s possible to come close to producing livestock with a neutral carbon output by maintaining that carbon cycle: Plants trap carbon, the cows eat and release it, fertilizing the land for more plants to trap more carbon.
“Rather than focusing the message on ‘Livestock is bad! Meat is bad!’,” he said, “what management practices do we need to adopt in the agricultural sector to ensure we are producing livestock in a way that is sustainable?”
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