Cattle farming victim of the generalized narrative
Cows are not the new smut and they are not the new Tesla.
As catchy as Time Magazine’s recent headline, “Cows are the New Coal,” perhaps, that’s not true. But it fits well into a well-crafted and biased narrative that’s now plaguing the beef industry.
Carbon is used by plants to create food for livestock. Cattle release this carbon, except for what is left in the soil, and it is part of a continuous cycle.
Coal, on the other hand, was once a plant. When we burn coal there is no cycle. He remains released. Even when we burn coal to generate electricity to power Tesla, like we do in Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is no carbon recycling.
To be fair, the Time Magazine article took its title and quote from a Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return report supported by the Jeremy Coller Foundation, an organization that oversees intensive animal agriculture.
Coller is a long-time globally successful fund manager, philanthropist and vegetarian who appears to have a fondness for a very small animal agriculture industry globally. But even suggests to him that animal agriculture has potential under the right conditions.
While equating livestock production with charcoal is not helpful for the cattle industry, it indicates serious vulnerabilities in the industry. There are several sources of beef cattle in this world. Some involve intensive production of calves at slaughter, based largely on the use of groundwater to irrigate silage, hay and grain. In other countries, much of this is supported by large government grants.
There are also herds of high carbon emitting cattle which are raised on pastures obtained by cutting old forests or tropical rainforests and by slash and burn agriculture.
Then there is the type of beef production we know best in Canada, where cows and calves are raised primarily on rainfed pastures that are unsuitable for other uses, and where the calves end up in backyards. fattening where surface water irrigation is used. for silage and almost all of the grain that is fed comes from arid land fields.
Many citizens of the western world might find a title like “Cows are the New Coal” acceptable because it reinforces the feeling they can feed after hearing and reading tons of pseudoscience and environmental cries related to farts and farts. Cattle burps combined with the dangers of methane as a greenhouse gas and wasted freshwater resources.
But vast acres of pasture would not be used for other purposes if the cattle did not graze them. They would be more likely to be plowed for unsustainable crops or left dormant, to lose biodiversity and productivity. They would also be more exposed to grass and prairie fires, which would release stored carbon, which we seek to avoid.
It is complicated to explain all the concepts that livestock become more efficient – through genetics, research and forage value – and that they have better carbon life cycles than natural landscape processes. A sustainable farming system without livestock also challenges recent trends towards regenerative agriculture.
Net carbon cattle systems are within the reach of the Canadian cattle brand and may in fact already be achieved in some cases. Telling this story and differentiating it from less environmentally sustainable beef production in other parts of the world will be crucial for the future of the industry.
Can beef production as we know it survive if grazing land and rain-fed production are exploited with less environmentally friendly forms of animal husbandry? Maybe not.
But again, charcoal Tesla are very popular on the Prairies.