Recent stories on my news feed have made bold declarations about how cattle are even bigger contributors to climate change than they previously thought (they already thought they were bad). Their conclusions are mostly focused on greenhouse gases – how much methane cows produce, and the carbon implications of raising cattle. I’m not a scientist, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer my opinion of the data or research they are using. I think I can, however, point out some data points that are absent from virtually every anti-cow article I’ve ever read.
Should cattle be removed from certain regions, namely those which historically have had large grazing ruminants like the Great Plains, what would the impact be on the other species that depend on their presence for ecosystem function? Is it logical to believe that removing cattle would not have a negative effect on these environments? What will be done to fill the hole left by cattle? They provide biological and mechanical services which are critical to a healthy prairie ecosystem. (Bison and elk, which occupied this role prior to European settlement in the Great Plains, are both ruminants, so the methane component would be similar to cattle.) And there are other aspects of climate change that would be impacted by an unhealthy prairie – less plant growth (less carbon sequestration), higher soil temperatures (less below-ground biological activity & more evaporation), poor water infiltration (more erosion and poorer water quality downstream), to name a few.
Speaking of bison and elk, I have yet to hear someone opposed to cattle for environmental reasons say that the vast herds of bison and elk that grazed North America prior to European settlers were ever a problem, and their near-extinction was actually a good thing. If the methane cattle produce is so terrible, would the bison not have been equally as bad?
I would agree with those who oppose cutting down rainforests to make room for cattle. Wholesale change of an ecosystem by man is something that generally has consequences. For those who wish to critique modern beef production, there is room for that discussion. However, to completely write off all beef production as detrimental to the planet’s health demonstrates a lack of critical thought and understanding of how different ecosystems function.
There has to be a balance. Any rational person believes this. Unfortunately, the cows and climate change debate is as polarized and dogmatic as any topic you’ll find. But really, it isn’t rocket science. When man makes drastic changes to an ecosystem, it’s generally a bad idea – whether that be putting cows where they don’t belong, or removing them from where they do. We need to become observers of nature and mimic what it does, rather than believe we have all the answers. We might find a more nuanced approach is the right one.