MN Sr Beef Ambassador
Should I eat beef? Does eating beef hurt the environment? Are cattle sustainable? What a set of loaded questions. In today’s world the media influences how we see almost everything from politics, COVID-19, fashion, nutrition, and even agriculture. When scrolling through social media answers to those three questions can be confusing depending on where you look. Who decides what is true? How are we supposed to make sense of this tangled mess of opposing views? There is no simple solution. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what they believe about beef based on tangible evidence.
You may ask yourself, should I eat beef? If I quit eating beef would it save the environment? What if I told you that may actually make it worse? In the United States, forty-one percent of the land is used as pasture or rangeland (Merrill). If there were no cows, that land, 654 million acres, would be unused. Wouldn’t that land be better used for producing crops to be grown? A majority of the land that is currently used as pasture is unsuitable for any other type of agricultural use because of climate and terrain. Land such as the hills of South Dakota that could be completely unusable because of the terrain are able to produce beef. Cattle make efficient use of the grasses in these rangelands because of their ability to digest cellulose, a main component in plants that is indigestible to humans. If cattle were eliminated from the picture, that land resource would go unused.
Would the environment be better off without cows? A major controversy that has recently come up in our society is cow farts. In actuality, the concern comes from cows burps, not farts. Cattle are ruminants and they ferment their food in order to digest it. As a result of this fermentation, methane is produced leading us to the topic of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions. This methane that is released in the form of burps is different from your typical GHG carbon dioxide because it only has a lifespan of ten years in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has an indefinite lifespan (“Frank”). After ten years, if the number of cattle in the US remain consistent so does all the methane emissions from cattle. In fact, the amount of cattle has gone down by over two-thirds since the 1970s and in turn reduced the beef industries emissions by 2.3 billion tons (“Frank”). Regardless, cattle still do contribute 3.7 percent of GHG emissions. Without cattle would we eliminate all 3.7 percent? The short answer is no, because while we may eliminate the emissions directly from cows, we would emit just as much if not more while producing the crops needed to mitigate the nutrient deficiency that would result from the loss of beef in diets. Ultimately, from an emissions standpoint, the environment would not be better off without cows.
Lastly, are cows sustainable? That word has many different definitions but personally it means I need to utilize the resources afforded me to the best of my ability in order to benefit the land, the economy, the society, and future generations. Can I achieve this through raising cattle? Yes. Cattle use land that would otherwise go to waste. They produce minimal GHG emissions and the footprint from US cattle has gone down and continues to go down. Additionally, ninety percent of cattles’ diet is made of human inedible plants and byproducts from many industries including ethanol production, cotton, and milling grains, and more importantly, they produce nineteen percent more edible protein than they consume (Place). At the end of the day or when my time on earth is up I will leave a legacy of stewardship. Stewardship of the land, the animals that graze the land, and the future generations of cattle producers behind me. This is sustainability at its finest.
“Frank Mitloehner: Cattle, Climate Change and the Methane Myth.” Alltech, 25 June 2019, https://www.alltech.com/features-podcast-blog/frank-mitloehner-cattleclimatechangeand-methane-myth.
Merrill, Dave and Lauren Leatherby. “Here’s How America Uses Its Land.” Bloomberg, 31 Jul 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/.
Place, Sarah. “Latest Study Confirms an Animal-Free Food System is Not Holistically Sustainable.” Medium, 8 Mar. 2018, https://medium.com/@beefitsfordinner/latest-studyconfirms-an-animal-free-food-system-is-not-holistically-sustainable-69df19dededd.