Book Review: Cowed’s Message is Less but Better Beef

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | July 27, 2016, 3:29 pm EDT
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There’s a lot to be learned from Cowed, by Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes. It’s about cows, but the eclectic topics range from the scandalous coverup of mad cow disease, to the origin of modern cattle from the legendary aurochs (i.e. the “Ur-ox”), to the gender politics of the cowboy, to the federal government’s subsidy of beef over-grazing on our public lands, to a visit to a dairy farm run by robots. Yet there’s a serious underlying theme as well—that the U.S. needs a fundamental transformation of its relationship to the cattle industry. As the authors put it, “Americans should eat much less beef and what we eat should be of a higher quality and produced in a more humane, sustainable manner.”

What kind of beef is “better”?

The meaning of “less” is clear (and the authors suggest that reducing our per-capita consumption by half is a reasonable goal), but what does it mean for it to be “of higher quality” and “sustainable”? This issue has recently been considered in an excellent blog post by my colleague Marcia DeLonge, but here I’ll focus more on the climate aspect of the question.

tfci-blog-beef-cowedTo their credit, Hayes and Boyer Hayes fully recognize the recent science showing that greenhouse gas emissions from beef are a substantial fraction of global warming pollution. They point to the much higher carbon footprint of beef compared not only to plant foods, but also to other meats, and even say (perhaps inspired a bit more by alliteration than science) that “it may be a choice between fewer cows or chaos.” And in considering carbon sequestration and the theories of Allan Savory, they conclude that “the numbers just don’t add up…. There is no credible livestock grazing strategy that, by itself, can begin to sequester all the world’s contemporary carbon dioxide emissions in real time…”

Yet their definition of better, more sustainable beef is organic and grass-fed (or technically, “grass-finished”, since all beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on pastures eating grass).

From a climate point of view, the differences between organic and conventional are not clear, but as for the effect of grass-fed versus grass-plus-supplemental feeds (e.g. grains, legumes, mineral supplements, vegetable oils) on animal emissions, there’s a definite trend seen in the recent scientific literature. It’s that beef cattle fed only on grass, without supplemental feeds, emit more greenhouse gases, not less—per day and over their lifetimes.

The authors don’t recognize the contradiction between their diagnosis and this solution, even though they mention some of the studies that show that supplementing grass with other kinds of food can reduce emissions, particularly of the powerful greenhouse gas methane. Indeed, the array of studies they cite that show how better nutrition can cut cows’ methane emissions is quite impressive in its variety, including research on flax, alfalfa, cottonseed and fish oils as well as byproducts from making other kinds of foods such as cashew nuts and wine.

Getting beyond thinking in the Holstein colors

I suspect that this contradiction in Cowed’s argument reflects a common tendency to see the question as having only two, diametrically opposed answers—either grass-finished grazing systems only, or the massive polluting feedlots (CAFOs) that the authors rightly, and very effectively, denounce. But this ignores an important alternative, common in many parts of the world—supplemental feeding, but on farms rather than in CAFOs. When well-managed this kind of on-farm integration of plant and animal production could not only reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the cattle, but also use the productive potential of farms more efficiently, as well as reducing farms’ own vulnerability to the dangers of climate change.

Although there are some scientific lapses such as this, the book displays an impressive amount of research, and also shows a clear sympathy for both cows and the people who raise them. The authors make the problems associated with cattle production abundantly clear. But it’s also evident that they’re seeking ways that humans and bovines can move their millennia-old relationship in a direction that would be healthier and more humane for both of them.

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