The New C Word(s); Cattle and Climate Change

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

(This article was posted in line with the United Nations’ International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, which falls annually on 16 September.)

The vegan lifestyle is one of the most rapidly growing out there, with a market that continues to expand, especially in this time of transparency. In addition to the graphic images of animal abuse that have moved millions to leave animal products off their plates and personal agendas, disclosed scientific data has further shoved vegan ideals into people’s hearts and minds. When norms and values are given the cold shoulder by those who tend to look down upon animals as a lesser species, another more relevant factor kicks in. Climate change is a global (and proven) phenomenon that has dire consequences on all of Earth’s inhabitants, including towards us homo sapiens. Although not always identified by the rising of temperatures, constant warming and heatwaves have caught our attention throughout recent years, and is unfortunately worsening.

It was as far back as 1985 that Earth felt below average global temperatures, and now each following year seems to be slowly creeping up to secure first place as the warmest. Human habits have been known to trigger changes in temperature; the most notoriously known being by burning fossil fuels and massive deforestation. However, out of the many speculated contributors of climate change, it has only been recently mentioned that human dietary habits are also a major factor. Animal agriculture, with its process of breeding, fattening, and ultimately producing commodities of livestock, contribute to contamination mainly through air pollution and land degradation.

The Trends in Global CO2 Emissions: 2016 Report mostly focused on fossil-fuel use and industrial processes as leading producers of carbon dioxide (C02). However, there is another contender in the mix. Methane, emitted by animals through gas, has the natural character of absorbing heat and warming the atmosphere, therefore categorizing it as a greenhouse gas, just like C02. Although not the largest source of methane, livestock numbers continue to increase year after year therefore accumulating larger amounts of methane circulating in our air.

Not that they asked for it, but the title of “most deadly burps and farts” goes to the 1300 pound (beef and dairy) cattle. While other livestock such as sheep, for example, only produce 30 liters of methane a day, cattle contribute a whopping 200 liters a day. In the cattle’s rumen (the first chamber of the stomach), food that has not perfectly broken down gets regurgitated and re-chewed to be digested easier. The hundreds of microbes that inhabit the rumen create methane gas as a byproduct. Many then question; if cattle as ruminant livestock are capable of emitting greenhouse gases naturally, shouldn’t we have been expecting this warming of the Earth from the beginning?

Farmed animals are considered as having potential commercial applications, and are not your ordinary animals; dairy and beef cattle undergo genetic modification in order to produce both more meat and milk due to the already massive yet rapidly growing human demand. With more humans being born onto this planet, even more farm animals are needed to supposedly sustain our dietary habits and needs. So in addition to the already increasing quantity of cattle in the world, we also challenge the laws of nature by altering their biological state. However, the dilemma doesn’t end here. In order to feed us more, cattle must be fed more as well.

Oxygen and fresh water are both crucial needs for survival. The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen and the 15% of the world’s fresh water is in the basin area.  When interviewed for the 2014 documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret”, Amazon Watch Program Director, Leila Salazar Lopez stated that agribusiness, mainly in the form of cattle grazing and soy production for cattle feed, is a significant driver of deforestation in addition to megaprojects (mining, dams, gas, etc.). The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has even gone as far as mentioning cattle ranching as its largest driver. Also, Brazil’s more devalued currency makes the industry more lucrative for importers looking for cheap products (not to mention for local exporters wanting to increase their income in a developing country).

We now have another direct link of cattle product consumption with climate change. More trees are being cut down not only for grazing purposes, but also for the large amount feedgrain that need to be planted; corn, soy, barley, and oats. On a global scale, 75% percent of soybean crops are not even being fed to humans but to livestock. In the end, one factor that all this can be traced back to is human overpopulation, which shows no sign of slowing down. The more human demand for cattle products such as milk, dairy, and leather, the more we will continue to enforce its supply as well. Human habits aren’t fixed; they can be altered due to external driving factors in order for us to continue living comfortably. So, the final question comes down to this; will comfort truly be favored over climate?