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  • Writer's pictureMarc Ferguson

WARNING: THIS IS A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

The uniformed should proceed with caution


Rules of a Thought Experiment

  1. Participants must think (reason through inference) using empirical information in the full context of the thesis

  2. Context matters - a lot

  3. Like any experiment, state a hypothesis and ask questions

Experiment Thesis

Eliminating cattle to solve the climate crisis is a stupid (sorry, intellectually lazy/intellectually dishonest) idea.


Context

The climate crisis is caused mainly by anthropogenic (human) activities that release CO2, CH4 (methane), and N2O. N2O and methane are 300 and 28 times more potent than CO2, respectively.

Cattle and dairy ranching is one such activity, as is growing corn for ethanol, rice, and sugarcane and sugar beets for sucrose. These activities involve continuously cycling CO2, methane, and N2O from the soil, to plants, to the atmosphere, and back again. Most of these cycling gasses occur naturally, with two staggering exceptions. N2O emissions from synthetic fertilizers are responsible for 80 percent of agriculture N2O emissions. And methane from accumulated ground manure in feedlots and manure holding ponds is responsible for roughly 12% of total livestock emissions (1). And every carbon molecule in either food or fuel is released back into the atmosphere as CO2 or methane (fun fact; about 38 percent of humans emit methane).


Humans eat beef and rice, drink milk, and eat lots of stuff made from sucrose. The food value of meat, dairy, and rice is the extreme opposite of the food value of sucrose (we'll use obesity as our measure). Close to 45% of the U.S. population is obese. Similarly, the importance of meat proteins (and amino acids) and vitamins and minerals in rice compared to sucrose for human health is also at opposite extremes.

Meat, rice, and corn are food - ethanol is not. On average, about 45 percent of corn grown in the U.S. goes to animal feed, 44 percent is turned into ethanol, 7 percent goes to food, and 3 percent becomes high-fructose corn syrup. Sugarcane and sugar beets account for 100 percent of sucrose - the rest goes to biofuels!


Cattle emit a meaningful amount of methane - about 220 lbs per cow per year (2). The EPA says there are 1.5 billion cows worldwide. That's a lot of methane - 37 percent of all methane emissions, which includes manure-related emissions (3). Next is natural gas (mainly from flaring and pipeline leaks) and oil production, which are responsible for 32 percent, landfills for 17 percent, rice for 12 percent, and coal mining for 9 percent. Thirty-eight percent of humans (6.4 billion) emit methane at a rate of 3.85 lbs per year, or 1.75% of the amount of a cow (4). Some quick math tells us that humans emit 10.4 percent of the total.


Let the thought experiment begin - Is it crazy to eliminate cattle to solve the climate crisis?

Hypothesis

There are many ways to solve the climate crisis, most of which will have a more significant impact.

Questions

  • Is eliminating cattle the only way to solve the climate crisis? Clearly, not. There are no silver bullet solutions, only an "all of the above" strategy.

  • Should it be included as an "all of the above" strategy? Clearly, not. Eliminating it is impractical and would remove a uniquely beneficial food source.

  • Okay, should we try to reduce it rather than eliminate it? Perhaps, but it is preferable to reduce other methane-emitting sources first. For instance, convert all of the corn-to-ethanol farmland to grasslands. USDA data shows that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (and therefore the N2O emissions) is twice that of other crops. The N2O-to-methane tradeoff ratio is 1.00:0.09, making it ten times better for the climate because grazing requires no synthetic fertilizer. Additionally, all agrochemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) harm the microorganisms responsible for natural carbon and nitrogen cycling and, notably, the formation of soil organic carbon. You can be almost sure that corn-to-ethanol farming practices have destroyed the soil's microorganisms and their ability to store carbon - which is the best possible thing for the climate.

  • Should we do the same with rice and sucrose crops? Only if it is the last resort for rice (we have used up all other options) or if we want to get serious about our obesity epidemic and its health impacts and costs (a thought experiment for another day). Here's something to contemplate, however. Differences in our diet are likely why some humans emit methane.

  • Does this also imply we should eat more meat? That is beyond the scope of this thought experiment. However, it implies that we should stop villainizing cattle and dairy ranching as destroying the climate.


(1) There are also N2O emissions from manure left by grazing livestock.

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