For those who believe that climate change is real there is a sub group of believers who think that eliminating meat from our diets is the answer to the climate change problem. The argument is based on the fact that cows create a large amount of methane which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. At first glance this may make sense but looking deeper there are basic issues. By some estimates the US has 80-100 million cows and beef cattle. If we look at the US in let’s say 1850 we would find maybe 80-100 bison. Bison are noticeably larger than cattle and they seem to create about 2 to 3 times as much methane as a cow does. It would seem that replacing all those bison with cattle actually cut our methane emissions over the last century and a half. While not well measured it is assumed that feeding cattle corn instead of grass increases the output of methane. The bison were grass eaters and so are cattle. The nature food for cattle is grass not corn, cattle have specially adapted stomachs to facilitate eating grass. There is a great deal of land that cannot be planted with grains but are instead grasslands. Cattle do fine on grasslands–in feed lots on the other hand we need to pump the cattle full of antibiotics to keep the animals healthy. Cattle do not fatten as quickly on grass, the cost per pound of beef (or gallon of milk) is higher, the meat and dairy from corn fed cattle is less grassy tasting. On the other hand the fat content of grass fed cattle has a much better ratio of omega 3/6 fatty acids (in some ways comparable to fish) as opposed corn fed beef which is predominantly omega 6 fatty acid. Cattle are adapted to eating grass not corn. Growing corn currently requires a large input of petroleum in the form for fuel for equipment, fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides applied. Grass on the other hand requires water and sun.
If we raise grass fed beef (or dairy) the water demands can be lower. Grass in the western US is not irrigated unlike hay used in large factory farms. Cattle in fields of grass provide natural fertilizer for the grass–similar to what those large herds of bison did 200 years ago–they eat grass and deposit manure as they move around. Growing grains requires large input of fertilizers usually in the form of chemicals. There is no practical vegan farming–plants adapted needing the manure of animals. The classic farm until maybe the early to mid twentieth century worked by mixing animals and plants in a small reasonably susstainable system.
Calling for elimination of cattle is not the answer, pushing for the elimination of factory farming (COFA’s in particular) is a better solution, a healthier environment for cattle, better land use, lower petroleum inputs, and less water use. The article below is one example of old farming practices appearing to be better than modern factory farming.