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Is Cattle Farming Good?
In the age of information, it is easy to find information that suits our beliefs. Pseudoscience can be found everywhere on the internet, and if you refuse to believe something, you’ll probably be able to find something online to confirm your biases. People can use falsified or vaguely described data and run with it. By using the skill of persuasion, they could also convince others of their falsehoods. Credible science practices the scientific method for the exploration of an idea or concept. Upon publication, scrutiny and peer review must be used to create the most credible articles.
Over the past few years, it has become somewhat common knowledge that the consumption and cultivation of beef is an unsustainable practice. Although the information has been widespread through films and online infographics, very few people are aware of the legitimate consequences of industrial cattle farming. Some people refuse to accept the effects of their diet and refuse to change it in light of that information which they deny.
In an article published by the Wallstreet Journal, author Nicolette Hahn Niman attempts to convince us that the cultivation of cattle is actually good for the environment. Throughout the article, Nicolette describes the potential benefits of cattle farming- under ideal conditions. She is a grass-fed cattle farmer and explains the potential benefits of grass-fed cattle farming for carbon sequestration (Niman, 2014). The article neglects to acknowledge the data concerning industrialized livestock agriculture and the difficulty of changing these practices to more ideal ones.
In her article, Niman (2014) states that “cattle are key to the world’s most promising strategy to counter global warming: restoring carbon to the soil.” The issue with this statement is that the cattle themselves are not sequestering carbon; the grass they feed on is. Cattle themselves produce a much more concerning greenhouse gas methane (van Lingen et al., 2019). She mentions the methane issue, describing how the methane output can be offset and reduced by better practices and supplements (Niman, 2014). However, it is a wonder if those supplements are being considered when measuring virtual water content and greenhouse gas emissions. The ability of grasslands to sequester carbon is regarded as an equalizer to Niman, but there is no mention of how much more damage methane can cause than carbon (Niman, 2014). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane traps in more than 25 times the amount of heat as carbon (the United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.). So, for carbon sequestration by grasslands to neutralize the impacts of methane, the amount of carbon being sequestered would have to be 25 times the amount of methane produced. The article contains no data on carbon or methane emissions (Niman, 2014).
Many natural ecosystems throughout the world have been disturbed or cut down to create pastures for cattle grazing. Grasslands may be efficient in carbon sequestration, but they are not the most effective ecosystem that exists in this country (Pugh et al., 2019). If a more efficient ecosystem is torn down to create these pastures, you are losing the potential for carbon sequestration and contributing to tillage and nutrient loss through soil erosion. Additionally, if they are clearing land that used to be forest to create these pastures, any burning of those logs would return already stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
In the Wall Street Journal article, Niman (2014) says that “Research at the University of California, Davis, shows that producing a typical pound of U.S. beef takes about 441 gallons of water per pound.” Note that the author says “a typical pound of U.S. beef,” this implies that this would be the average virtual water content for beef across the country. In a study conducted over six different beef production systems, it was concluded that generalizations on the water footprint of livestock should be avoided due to their immense variation in practices (Ridoutt et al., 2012). The number that was given by Niman in her article apparently came from a study conducted by the University of California, Davis. When looking for this research, very little was to be found. On the University of California, Davis site, I was able to find a short summary of what I’m assuming was a more extensive article written by Pat Bailey. This research had been published back in 1991, making it somewhat outdated for climate-based research (Bailey, 1991). Bailey also explained how the type of feed being used for these animals is the most significant factor to consider when looking into water footprint (Bailey, 1991). In the article by Niman, she only considers grass-fed farms, which are not the national norm. She then goes on to describe the adverse effects of agricultural produce and its ability to release carbon instead of sequestering it (Niman, 2014). ” This is due to tillage, which releases carbon and strips the earth of protective vegetation, and to farming practices that fail to return nutrients and organic matter to the earth. Plant-covered land that is never plowed is ideal for recapturing carbon through photosynthesis and for holding it in stable forms.” (Niman, 2014). This assumes that all agriculture produced to produce vegetation and fruit is a monoculture-based farming style that practices plowing. The comparison she is failing to acknowledge is that there has been a rise in more sustainable farming practices and a push for more biodiverse farms (Kayser et al., 2010). Far fewer farmers are plowing their lands due to its benefits for nutrient cycling (Kayser et al., 2010).
Through further research into the topic, it has become clear that cattle farming does not have to be as detrimental to the environment as I initially thought. Niman’s article is an example of pseudoscience because of the lack of supporting evidence and data. This article also compares farming produce in the most harmful crop practices but only highlights grass-fed cattle farming and not industrialized cattle farming. Furthermore, there are references to multiple studies in this article without any proper citation or defining details to assist in finding those studies that are being relied upon for the conclusions she reaches.
Bailey, P. (1991). Water Needs for Meat Production. University of California Davis. Retrieved from https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/water-needs-meat-production
Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012). The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy. Animal Frontiers(2), 3-8. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/af/article/2/2/3/4638610#198769025
Kayser, M., Muller, J., Isselstein, J. (2010) Nitrogen management in organic farming: comparison of crop rotation residual effects on yields, N leaching and soil conditions. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems(87), 21-31. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/2259822986?accountid=14473&pq-origsite=summon
Niman, N.H. (2014). Actually, Raising Beef is Good for the Planet. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from
Pugh, T.A.M., Lindeskog, M., Smith, B., Poulter, B., Arneth, A., Haverd, V., Calle, L. (2019). Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics. PNAS(10), 4382-4387. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/4382
Ridoutt, B.G., Sanguansri, P., Freer, & M., Harper, G.S. (2011). Water footprint of livestock: comparison of six geographically defined beef production systems. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment(17), 165-175. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.proxy.consortiumlibrary.org/article/10.1007%2Fs11367-011-0346-y#Sec7
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Importance of Methane. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/gmi/importance-methane
van Lingen, H.J., Niu, M., Kebreab, E., Filho, S.C.V., Rooke, J.A., Duthie, C.A., Schwarm, A., Kreuzer, M., Hynd, P.I., Caetano, M., Eugene, M., Martin, C., McGee, M., O’Keily, P., Hunerberg, M., McAllister, T.A., Berchiel, T.T., Messana, J.D., Peiren, N., … Hristov, A.N. (2019) Prediction of enteric methane production, yield and intensity of beef cattle using an intercontinental database. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment(283), 106575. Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.proxy.consortiumlibrary.org/science/article/pii/S0167880919301914