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Health Hack #53 - The Common Arguments Against Cattle

There’s a lot of noise suggesting that our nation’s proclivity for meat and dairy consumption is a large contributing factor to climate change and that this consumption places a heavy strain on some of our planet’s most vital resources. This is part of the story behind the surge in popularity of meatless burgers produced by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. The environmental slant is that plant based inputs are better for our planet than animal meats, suggesting that if we can’t quite shake our attraction towards juicy burgers, then there’s no need to worry. We can literally have our cake and eat it too by making decisions that benefit our earth’s health while satiating that intense burger craving.

There are three overarching arguments that are continually referenced in regard to the environmental devastation wrought by animal agriculture, red meat specifically. The first has to do with water consumption. It’s purported that cattle farming poses a tremendous drain on our global water system and startling statistics are thrown about to hammer this home. One, pulled directly from the oft referenced Meatless Monday organization's "19 Reasons to go Meatless on Monday," states that a quarter pound of beef requires 425 gallons of water to produce.

Another common argument revolves around greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture takes a bad rap in this department, due largely to the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that they release into the atmosphere. Documentary films, like Cowspiracy, highlighted the role in which cow belching and flatulence are wreaking atmospheric havoc, arguing tie-ins to climate change. The greenhouse gas argument is often linked into the narrative that the number of ruminants are ever-increasing, due in large part to the animal meat and dairy industries.  

The third argument revolves around land and how much space it takes to house cattle. This is an interesting angle, since it presupposes that cattle are freely grazing and not factory farmed. We’ll touch on the key distinctions later, as this is important, but there is a bit more to dive into with the land argument before moving forward. It touches on one primary point: while assuming a free roaming nature, the argument has it that one acre of land is needed per one grazing cow, and it highlights the amount of yield of plant crops that could be had if many of these acres held plant crops instead cattle.

Water Usage

It turns out that cattle do in fact require quite a bit of water. However, a rarely discussed companion to this statistic is the fact that there exists a spectrum of water. There is blue, green, and grey water. We read these proclamations about water consumption and are often led to believe that our planet's finite supply of water is under attack by animal agriculture. Blue water, from our oceans and seas, is where we should place our concerns. Cattle management consists of 94% green water usage, which is rain water (there are likely a few percentage points of grey water blended into the 94%; grey water refers to relatively clean water cycling through baths, washing machines, etc.). Only 6% of the water used pulls from blue water. Rain water certainly has its importance, but it falls and occurs naturally and automatically, and to suggest that certain things or industries are stealing is an argument that doesn’t hold much water (wink).

It's noteworthy that the bulk of the water consumed (upwards of 98%) for animal agriculture comes from the manufacturing of the feed. Actual drinking water, service water, and feed-mixing water come in at around 2%.  

In other words, when you deprive the animals of feed with synthetic inputs, GMO's, etc. and allow them to graze naturally, the water usage becomes barely recognizable. In a pasture raised context, to suggest that we should stop eating meat and consuming dairy for the benefit of our planet’s water resources is pseudo-science. To suggest that we should stop eating factory-farmed meat for the benefit of our planet makes a bit more sense, but is still quite misleading in regards to its overall environmental impact.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Like the water argument, the emissions concept often comes with varying degrees of percentages and statistics. The overarching argument suggests that cattle, in general, comprise a heavy percentage of all greenhouse gas emissions and that the animal food industry has compelled an ever-growing number of cattle and other ruminants to inhabit the planet.

For starters, it’s important to take the entirety of the greenhouse gas argument into consideration. The term greenhouse gas emissions has become quite loaded, and stuck with a negative connotation in its influence on our environment. But are all of these emissions necessarily bad? The carbon cycle is a sustainer of life itself, and without it, life as we know it would be both non-existent and impossible (ironically, this is especially true for plants).  Most carbon dioxide emissions flow into this ancient cycle, ultimately being taken up into plants and later converted into carbohydrates.

Methane, whether it’s sprung into the atmosphere from the creation of a rice patty or a cow with indigestion, will typically (especially in heavy the presence of oxygen) go through a cycle of its own. Generally over the course of a decade, it degrades into the lesser potent carbon dioxide and is recycled into the atmosphere, and it often winds up as water.  

There is tremendous nuance, and this author is far from an authority on the subject, but the point is that life-sustaining processes shouldn’t be outright villainized because they’re viewed through one slanted lens. But supposing that they did spell bad news 100% of the time, it turns out that the cattle indigestion argument totals just 2% of overall greenhouse gas emissions anyway.  

Interestingly, the clampdown that occurred during the early stages of COVID-19 pointed to a very real, definable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (see here). With no change on ruminating animals or meat/dairy production, carbon dioxide emissions were dramatically curtailed. Why? This almost assuredly points towards the heavy and immediate impact that the transportation industry has on emissions. The EWG Meat Eater's Guide suggests that eating one less beef burger per week is the equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles, however, based upon the last few months, this doesn’t seem to have much bearing on reality.

The Land Argument

It’s argued that “Livestock production uses 75% of the earth’s agricultural land”. Ok. What’s virtually never discussed is the notion that 75% of all open land is suitable only to grazing animals. It’s either too dry, too rocky, too soil-poor, and/or too hilly to sustain agriculture. Here, we’re back to the misleading water usage argument.

Adding to this counter-argument, of all of our country’s lands inhabited by grazing animals, a whopping 85% of them are unsuitable to agriculture. The argument of “how many plants could be harvested on a swath of land dedicated to only one cow” falls flat on its face.

In Conclusion

It’s important to consider the three classes of thinking when arguing for or against meat. Here, we’re focused almost exclusively on the environmental one. One of the others is nutrition, and we’ve covered this in depth in recent articles (Nose to Tail Eating and Why Our Beef is Grass Fed). The third, and arguably the most loaded due to its subjective nature, is an ethical one--we’ve pondered this quandary in a prior article, as well (To Kill a Squawking Bird).

As for the environmental lens, the conversation should be more straightforward than it is.  Much like the spectrum of water, there exists a spectrum of cattle raising and of meat production. If you really want to help our planet via your food choices, then the simple answer is to choose real food. Real food is animals that have had the opportunity to experience the freedom to wander, to relax, to graze freely off the land, and who have experienced just one bad day (at the end of their life). It is NOT living within a crowded pen, under a constant state stress, sustaining from a diet made primarily of synthetic feed, and given a miserable quality of life from birth until slaughter. It’s also not lab-grown, factory-produced, often GMO-laden, highly processed, pseudo-meats.