California Ranchers and Activists Face Off Over a Federal Plan to Cull a Beloved Tule Elk Herd

The elk are a main attraction in Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. But ranchers who share the park say the elks’ numbers create problems.

BY KATELYN WEISBROD

Oct 18, 2020

Tule Elk. Credit: Julia Kane/InsideClimate News

Known for its seaside bluffs and dense summer fog, Point Reyes National Seashore is a landscape of rolling coastal prairie blending into forests and marshlands, a sanctuary for hundreds of plants and animals and a destination for migrating birds and marine life. 

Just a one-hour drive from San Francisco, the 71,000-acre peninsula serves as a haven for native California species like snowy plovers, red-legged frogs, coho salmon and tule elk.

The tule elk are one of the primary attractions of the park, which sees over 2 million visitors annually, and they can be easy to spot in the zones where they’re preserved. 

The elks’ beauty and majesty is hard to miss; one frequent visitor to the park described their strange, high-pitched bugle as “otherworldly.” Once on the brink of extinction, tule elk were reintroduced into Point Reyes in 1978. Now, hundreds of elk live in three herds throughout the park. 

But Point Reyes is also home to about 20 ranches that have operated in the park since the mid-1800s. And the tule elk are at the center of a major battle between ranchers, who say the elk are overpopulated and disruptive to their operations, and animal and environmental activists, who think that ranching has degraded the land, leaving it to resemble a “lunar landscape,” as one activist said. The park, the activists argue, should prohibit ranching and preserve the land entirely as wilderness to protect the elk and other species. 

Tule elk were reintroduced into Point Reyes National Seashore in 1978, and now exist in three distinct herds in the park. Credit: Julia Kane/InsideClimate News
Tule elk were reintroduced into Point Reyes National Seashore in 1978, and now exist in three distinct herds in the park. Credit: Julia Kane/InsideClimate News

Conflict between ranchers and environmentalists is not uncommon in the West, where wildlife and agriculture often collide. Wild horses in Utah compete with cattle for resources; black-tailed prairie dogs in Wyoming are shot and poisoned by ranchers who consider them “pests”; and wolves, reintroduced in western states in the 1980s, are often blamed by ranchers for killing livestock.

The tule elk in Point Reyes have virtually no natural predators, so management of their population is left up to the National Park Service, which is in the process of implementing a wildlife management plan that includes killing elk in one of the three herds to control their numbers, a process known as culling. 

One of the prime considerations for how to manage the tule elk is how their numbers affect the ranchers, who sold their land to the government when the park was established in 1962. Many stayed on the land and continued ranching under renewable five-year permits. 

Environmental groups sued the National Park Service in 2016 for planning to extend leases for the ranchers from five to 20 years without analyzing the environmental impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups reached a settlement agreement in 2017 that required the park service to solicit public input and amend its 1980 general management plan with an Environmental Impact Statement before issuing any 20-year leases.

The park service considered six alternatives for its amended plan, ranging from eliminating ranching in the park altogether—an option favored in over 90 percent of the 7,600 public comments submitted to the agency—to the plan the park service says it prefers, which includes extending ranchers’ leases and limiting the population of the Drakes Beach herd of elk to 120 animals to prevent them from eating cattle feed, bothering cows and causing other disturbances. If the population were to exceed 120, the park service would begin culling. At the end of 2019, there were 138 tule elk in the Drakes Beach population.

On Sept. 18, 2020, the park service released its final Environmental Impact Statement, officially announcing its decision to go with its preferred option. That initiated a 30-day waiting period for the park service to conduct its final consultations with other agencies. That period ends on Sunday, after which a “Record of Decision” can be issued, finalizing the amended management plan and allowing leases to be extended and culling to begin.

A Serengeti of Wildlife

Wildlife biologist and California Director at Western Watersheds Project Laura Cunningham likes to picture what the Point Reyes peninsula might have been like 500 years ago: filled with huge herds of tule elk grazing on lush green coastal prairies while coho salmon swam in the creeks and pods of whales passed by off the coast. 

“I imagine it as a place of just riches of biodiversity,” she said. “It must have been just a Serengeti of wildlife.”

Tule elk are a native species in California found nowhere else in the world. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News
Tule elk are a native species in California found nowhere else in the world. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News

In the late 1800s, tule elk were thought to no longer exist, hunted into extinction by settlers. But in 1874, a rancher discovered a herd of fewer than 30 tule elk on his land near Bakersfield, California. The herd was preserved, and now 5,700 tule elk live in about 22 herds around the state. 

In 1978, 10 tule elk were introduced into Point Reyes National Seashore, fenced in at Tomales Point on the northernmost end of the peninsula to keep them off ranches. Twenty years later, 28 elk from the Tomales Point herd were relocated to Limantour Beach, about 20 miles south of Tomales Point on the east side of Drakes Estero, a large estuary in the center of the peninsula, establishing a second, free-ranging herd. From there, several of the elk migrated to Drakes Beach, on the west side of Drakes Estero, where a third herd of tule elk in Point Reyes now live. 

A Conflict in Point Reyes: Ranchers and Tule Elk

The 2020 Environmental Impact Statement addresses how to manage the Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach herds, including the Drakes Beach culling plan.

The National Park Service looked into moving the elk somewhere else before settling on a lethal solution for reducing the population, said Melanie Gunn, park service outreach coordinator for Point Reyes National Seashore. The park service considered relocating individuals from the Drakes Beach herd to somewhere outside of Point Reyes, but tule elk within the park are known to have Johne’s Disease—a highly contagious and fatal bacterial infection that occurs among ruminant animals. The symptoms of the disease often do not appear until several months after an animal is infected. The elk could not be relocated without risking the spread of the disease to herds outside the park. Tule elk may have caught the disease from cattle in Point Reyes, and they can only be effectively tested for it after death. 

When culling does begin—and it will, unless the Record of Decision does not come through—it will be conducted by the National Park Service and other conservation officials to ensure that genetic diversity and sex ratio are taken into account when selecting which indivudal elk to kill, especially considering the entire population descended from fewer than 30 individuals.

“It will be specific, not random,” Gunn said.

Elk Trouble

Driving through the ranching district—22,000 acres designated as a national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places—the smell of cow feces is distinctive. In some parts of the park during mid-October, scrub grass coats the landscape in a golden brown color; in other parts, hundreds of cattle stand on muddy land devoid of much vegetation. 

Ranchers operate in the park under one of two types of leasing agreements: a special permit that limits their tenancy to five years, or a so-called reservation of use and occupancy, which gives ranchers use of the land for up to 25 years or, in some cases, for as long as the rancher is alive. 

Bill Niman, who operates a beef ranch with about 300 cattle at the southern end of Point Reyes, has a lease that extends for the rest of his life. The deal is similar to ownership, in that he pays property taxes and maintains his facilities, but has some restrictions; for example, he can’t sell the property. 

Bill Niman operates a regenerative beef ranch of about 300 cattle in the south end of Point Reyes. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News
Bill Niman operates a regenerative beef ranch of about 300 cattle in the south end of Point Reyes. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News

Niman and his wife Nicolette Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer and the author of a book defending small-scale, grass-fed beef farms, practice rotational grazing on their land. The couple move their cattle from one patch of land to another to allow time for the land to rest between grazing periods. This keeps the landscape full of diverse plants and helps the soil sequester carbon, they said.

“What we’re trying to do is mirror nature and manage the land in the way that nature would if humans were not interfering,” Niman said.

Located just north of Bolinas on the south end of the park, far from any tule elk herd, Hahn Niman said they don’t have an issue with elk on their ranch, thanks to park management.

But on some ranches, elk consume grass and supplemental cattle feed, like hay and alfalfa. Some ranchers have reported elk eating this supplemental food, but “it has not yet been identified as a significant or widespread problem,” the final Environmental Impact Statement said.

And Hahn Niman said she has heard about cases of elk creating more serious disturbance, with dozens of the animals entering barns and eating cattle feed, or acting aggressively toward cows. She spoke publicly on behalf of ranchers during the 2016 lawsuit.  

“[Ranchers] have had a number of their heifers that have been injured or even had to be put down because they were mounted by large male tule elk,” Hahn Niman said. “It’s weird stuff like this that I didn’t understand until I talked directly with ranchers involved.”

She emphasized that ranchers love seeing tule elk and other wildlife in the park. Ranchers, she said, wanted the park to be established, and without the ranchers, the land, so near the Bay Area, would have instead been developed into prime real estate. But without wolves and bears and hardly any mountain lions, she said, the elk have to be managed and their population needs to be controlled.  

“You don’t have the robust population of natural predators that once existed here; they’re almost entirely gone,” she said. “The only remaining predator really is the human.”

A Banned Volunteer

Diana Oppenheim volunteered for three years in Point Reyes National Seashore—a place she calls “literal magic.” She guided a monthly group that would start the day removing invasive species from the park’s sandy coastal dunes, and then led the group in a yoga class on the beach. 

Oppenheim said she was shocked when she started to hear rumors that the National Park Service was planning to cull the Drakes Beach herd.

“I was a very heavily involved volunteer; I was there all the time and I didn’t know this was happening,” Oppenheim said. “There was a big lack of public awareness around this issue, and I felt like if people knew, we could change the course of what was going to happen.”

Diana Oppenheim (left) leads demonstrators in Point Reyes National Seashore. The group of nearly 300 protested the National Park Service's plan to cull animals in the Drakes Beach tule elk herd. Courtesy of Diana Oppenheim
Diana Oppenheim (left) leads demonstrators in Point Reyes National Seashore. The group of nearly 300 protested the National Park Service’s plan to cull animals in the Drakes Beach tule elk herd. Courtesy of Diana Oppenheim

She started ForElk.org to increase awareness of the park service’s management plan, putting up tables at grocery stores and farmers’ markets and approaching visitors at the park. Soon, Oppenheim was organizing protests. In August 2019, the park service opened its 45-day public comment period.

As the momentum of the movement accelerated, Oppenheim also made her views clear on her social media accounts. The National Park Service, she said, asked her to remove all references to her working as a volunteer in Point Reyes, in order to protect the agency’s neutrality on the issue. When she refused, Oppenheim—once named the park’s “volunteer of the year”—was banned from volunteering in Point Reyes National Seashore, she said. 

“That only fueled my fire,” Oppenheim added.

In late September, she and other activists in the Bay Area banded together to organize a demonstration. Nearly 300 people showed up to protest the culling plan and call for the ranches to be removed from the park. 

“They’re going to actually kill these elk that have been brought back from extinction in order to appease these ranchers,” Oppenheim said.

A Crucial Role

The purpose of Point Reyes National Seashore—stated at the top of the legislation that created it—is to “save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit and inspiration” the undeveloped seashore.

Nowhere, activists say, does it mention the preservation of ranching. In fact, said Jack Gescheidt, an activist with the TreeSpirit Project, ranching is contradictory to the park’s purpose. 

“You can either have large scale dairy and cattle operations in an area, or a national park,” he said, “you can’t have both.”

Gunn, however, disagreed. She said the park and the ranches have coexisted since the park’s establishment in 1962, and they will continue to do so.

In 2019, a congressional statement said multi-generational ranching is important economically and ecologically in Point Reyes and is “fully consistent with Congress’s intent for the management of Point Reyes National Seashore.” 

Ranching, Gunn said, has been recognized by Congress as being “part of the fabric of Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s part of our responsibility to maintain.”

Hahn Niman said ranching can and should coexist with all wildlife in Point Reyes through regenerative practices.

“Ranching should be minimizing the use of chemicals and should be always attentive to mirroring natural systems,” she said, adding that ranchers should be “creating a vibrant space here for countless wild animals that are in fact living here.”

Tule elk nearly went extinct after they were hunted to just about 30 in the late 1800s. Now, thousands of elk live in about 22 herds throughout California. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News
Tule elk nearly went extinct after they were hunted to just about 30 in the late 1800s. Now, thousands of elk live in about 22 herds throughout California. Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News

Elk biologist Julie Phillips said that tule elk are a vital part of the Point Reyes ecosystem, and can be considered a keystone species, because plants in the ecosystem rely on them to disperse seeds and maintain the native environment. 

Phillips—who is opposed to ranching in Point Reyes—said she has observed native grasses return and landscapes restored after tule elk have been reintroduced in other areas around California. 

If cattle are removed from Point Reyes, Phillips said, tule elk “will help restore that degraded land, and the elk will play a critical role in bringing back native habitat.”

Unlike so many species that went extinct after European settlement, tule elk got a second chance at survival. In an era where climate change is threatening to demolish Earth’s ecosystems, Oppenheim said, a biological hotspot like Point Reyes should be easy to protect. 

“We’re facing a severe loss of biodiversity on the planet,” Oppenheim said, and preservation “should be a no brainer in some of the most protected lands of the world.”

She added: “Point Reyes is a gem and should absolutely be protected and restored.”

Top Photo Credit: Julie Kane/InsideClimate News

Animal Agriculture and Its Negative Impact on Climate Change

https://sentientmedia.org/animal-agriculture-climate-change/

One of the most overlooked factors of accelerated climate change is animal agriculture. Could changes to the human diet help us slow down the climate crisis?Reading Time: 6 minutes

Animal agriculture has long left its mark upon the earth. Forests have fallen and grasslands trampled in favor of crops and pastureland. Now, however, this sector’s impacts are being felt in the atmosphere – carrying troubling implications for every living thing on the planet.

The agriculture sector is one of the biggest drivers of anthropogenic – meaning human-caused – climate change. Animal agriculture, which sees the raising and processing of ruminants, poultry, and marine life, accounts for some of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses. Global temperatures rise as forest cover decreases, and oceans warm as they absorb ever-more carbon dioxide. 

Yet there are solutions to these problems – among which is the adoption of plant-based diets. It is not too late for the world to take action against the perils of a changing climate, but time for action is now. 

How Does Animal Agriculture Affect The Environment

Practicing agriculture does not necessarily come naturally to us as a species. For much of human prehistory, people lived in societies oriented around hunting and gathering. The earliest signs of agriculture can be dated at around 12,000 years ago, yet since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has taken on an entirely new face, adopting intensive practices such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which foster truly heartbreaking conditions for farmworkers, animals, and surrounding communities alike. 

Called humanity’s greatest mistake by some due to the resulting hard labor, diminished nutrition, and social inequality brought by agriculture, this system of food production now presents the world with a new quandary: environmental destruction on scales that can no longer be ignored. 

CAFOs produce enormous amounts of waste, which collect in vast open-air lagoons that can be breached by extreme weather events or gradually seep into groundwater. Water pollution from CAFOs can cause algal blooms which can devastate entire marine ecosystems. Air pollution is generated from CAFOs as manure is vaporized, sending toxic wafts through the air to surrounding communities. 

Vast fields of monocrops also cause a host of environmental effects, including air pollution. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed in liberal amounts, which can cause a host of debilitating illnesses, including cancers, for farmworkers and surrounding communities. Soil depletion is also a serious looming issue. Monocropping, along with the overuse of agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus, are denying fields a fallow period or crop rotation has the effect of leeching soils of their nutrients. These practices render soils far less productive over time. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years for soils to become abundantly fertile again. 

Impact Of Animal Agriculture On Climate Change

Out of all the human activities that cause climate change, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors. Estimates as of 2020 put the sector’s global contributions at 37 percent. Below are a few key factors accounting for climate change emissions resulting from human-cased agriculture. 

Land Use

A full 50 percent of the world’s livable land – meaning land that is ice-free and fertile – is being used for agriculture. No other human activity takes up more space. In contrast, all urban areas account for around one percent of livable land use. A whopping 77 percent of agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals, including grazing and the land used to grow their feed, including vast monocrops of species like corn and soy. Surprisingly, this huge expenditure of resources and land use provides only 18 percent of the world’s calories. 

Land used for any type of agriculture – be it livestock or crops meant for people or animals – is brought under cultivation by clearing forests and grasslands, which are carbon sinks due to their abilities to absorb carbon. Currently, forests consume roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic CO2, yet the more forests are slashed and burned to make way for pastureland or monocrops, the less carbon will be absorbed, resulting in accelerated climate change.

Livestock

Farmed animals – referred to as livestock – generate over 14 percent of all anthropogenic emissions, with estimated totals hovering around seven gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted every year. The bulk of these emissions are due to raising cattle for meat and dairy, contributing 60 percent of total livestock emissions.  These emissions are thanks to the vast amounts of resources cows consume, the land they require for pasture (in the case of beef cattle), and other manure they produce. Cow manure contains nitrous oxide and methane, the latter being one of the most potent greenhouse gasses due to its outsized ability to absorb heat. 

Fisheries

Marine life, including fish, shellfish, shrimp, and other animals are taken from the seas in astronomical numbers. Nets, some of which are large enough to contain 12 jumbo jet airplanes, are dragged through the water or across the bottom of the seafloor, capturing everything in their path. Direct fishing activity, plus the energy expended to transport, process, and refrigerate carcasses amounted to an estimated total of 179 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2011 – and this number likely will continue to grow as demand for seafood increases. 

How Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Climate?

In greenhouses designed to grow plants, the transparent glass structure allows sunlight into the greenhouse while preventing heat from escaping. The earth’s atmosphere functions in a similar way, with gas molecules acting like the glass. Certain gases are more effective at absorbing heat than others; these include methane, nitrous oxide, and perhaps the most infamous, carbon dioxide. These three gasses are among the main culprits of climatic warming and change caused by human activities. 

One of the biggest drivers of global warming has been the release of carbon into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal, which power many aspects of modern life. Even electric cars, which run on batteries and do not themselves generate carbon emissions, draw electricity from grids still run on fossil fuels (although the goal of using 100% renewable energy for electric grids is more achievable than ever). When carbon released from fossil fuel burning is released into the atmosphere, it binds with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide and begins trapping heat in the atmosphere. Because carbon emissions make up the vast majority (81 percent, as of 2018) of total greenhouse gases, they pose one of the gravest threats to climate stability. 

Although carbon is the greatest emitted by volume, other greenhouse gases can be much more potent. For example, one ton of nitrous oxide – emitted by agricultural processes including the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production – is equivalent to nearly 300 tons of carbon dioxide.

Methane is approximately 30 times more potent in its ability to absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Can Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Animal Agriculture Be Reduced?

By far, the most effective way to reduce the animal agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas footprint is to significantly reduce, and eventually eliminate animal agriculture. While this might sound “extreme”, it is the state of industrial animal agriculture – characterized by inhumane CAFOs, waste lagoons teeming with pathogens and antibiotics, and requiring enormous land and feed inputs – which is even more extreme

This is not to say that eliminating animal agriculture is something easily accomplished. Demand will have to decrease, thanks to people turning to plant-based diets. The ease of adopting these diets is not the same for everyone, however. Many lower-income neighborhoods in the United States are classified as food deserts, where a lack of grocery stores forces people to endure extremely limited options, such as gas stations or fast-food restaurants. 

People in nations like the United States who do not live in food deserts bear much of the responsibility for reducing demand for animal products. Fortunately, plant-based options abound to replace animals in a wide range of products, from cheese to milk to burgers and sausages. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the leading companies in the plant-based meat sector, helping the idea of plant-based meats go mainstream and helping people understand that it’s possible to achieve the BBQ-worthy tastes without the climate side-effects. Plant-based meats use up to 99 percent less land and emit up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal Agriculture And Global Warming

Flying in planes or driving SUVs have long been understood as having negative impacts on the global climate. While these are certainly deserving of critique and change, the agriculture sector deserves time in the spotlight. If industrial agriculture continues to grow unchecked, global warming will increase – with potentially disastrous impacts, the beginnings of which are being felt today. Methane, produced by livestock including sheep, goats, and cows, is a greenhouse gas with a terrific ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. The agriculture industry is responsible for fully 40 percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to curb global warming, and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global emissions will need to be reduced by around 40 to 50 percent. According to the U.N., the only way to achieve these reductions is to drastically increase forested land – which means reclaiming land currently under cultivation and to stop intrusions into existing forests.  

Conclusion

Due to its profound impacts on the climate and environment around the world, agriculture may well be humanity’s gravest mistake – because it may be our undoing. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are seriously curbed, the world is going to be a far more difficult place to endure. Reducing demand for animal agriculture and adopting a plant-based diet is among the most important actions any individual can make. 

Burger King’s New Low-Methane Burgers Aren’t Going to Save Us

https://sentientmedia.org/burger-king-low-methane-burger-arent-going-to-save-us/?fbclid=IwAR2k-gtwOk1QhNXBIRb0JfzHujVSAil5cEsr_uQwCMVqfTRI4U39Pcr6DbY

The meat industry is under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. But if you want to save the planet, opt for the salad. It’s that simple.Reading Time: 5 minutes

July is over and with it Burger King’s short-lived but much-touted experiment with low-methane burgers. Two weeks ago, an ad for burgers made from cows fed with lemongrass to reduce the climate impact of their burps went viral, garnering the company free advertising by virtually all major media networks as well as some well-deserved criticism. Now the ad, like all things viral, is on its way to being forgotten, and the allegedly low-methane burger will fade off menus. But the whole episode can tell us a lot about how meat producers are greenwashing their products.

Burger King, like other companies that sell beef, is beginning to feel the heat from global climate change, and they are responding to the climate crisis by presenting unsustainable products as environmentally friendly. Don’t be fooled. Any way you slice it, beef’s climate cost can’t be reduced with marginal fixes like lemongrass.

The viral ad announcing Burger King’s new “low emissions” burger is a joke—and a fart joke at that. It opens with a boy styled in a white cowboy suit with a guitar in hand. He kicks open a saloon door embedded in a gassy bovine rectum (yes, really!) and, backed by a chorus of two-stepping tykes, he honky-tonks his way through psychedelic pastures and rolling hills among farting woodcut cows. The kids dance past melting icebergs and above billowing methane clouds, before donning hats decorated with lemongrass tufts. “Since we are part of the problem, we’re working to be part of the solution,” Burger King concludes. But they’re only half right!

The scene sure is something, but the science is dubious. Cows mostly burp, not fart methane. That Burger King is sniffing the wrong end of the cow is, at best, a joke and, regardless, a reminder that the company is in the burger business and not science business. The 33 percent methane reduction the company promises by switching to “low emissions” beef is also misleading. The claim is not based on peer-reviewed science, and the alleged reduction only accounts for emissions in the final “fattening” stage of production—as opposed to a cow’s entire life—meaning its total contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) is probably closer to 3-4 percent. Tellingly, Burger King released the ad on the same day that scientists announced that global methane emissions have grown dramatically in the past two decades.

Burger King’s ad is just the latest example of a growing trend of greenwashing in beef marketing. Beef industry organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Beef Checkoff Program regularly issue press releases and factsheets touting the “sustainability” of beef, while major beef producers publicly swear they’re cutting GHG emissions. And it seems to be working, with some major media organizations lapping up the message that “Low-methane meat is a thing now.”

It’s easy to see why Big Beef is working hard to cast their product as climate-friendly. Over the past two decades, the meat industry has come under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. Livestock—between methane emissions, the production of feed, and other production costs—contribute about 15 percent of total global GHGs and, since cattle make up 40 percent of that, cattle alone make up about 6 percent of humanity’s GHG footprint. In the U.S., cattle represent 3.7 percent, or about 240,500,000 metric tons, of GHGs per year.

The average American eats about 57 pounds of beef per year, and between the domestic and export market, the U.S. produces around 27 billion pounds annually. That’s 33.6 million head of cattle, with just four enormous producers—Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and National Beef—accounting for 85 percent of the supply. These cattle have a massive environmental footprint and require an enormous amount of land.

Beef advocates are mustering a defense of their climate impact under the slogan, “It’s not the Cow. It’s the How.” Some acknowledge the impact of large-scale, feedlot-fed beef, but encourage smaller-scale “regenerative” agriculture. These advocates contend that cattle grazing stimulates carbon sequestration in soils and that cows’ manure can substitute for carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizers, thereby offsetting methane emissions and making cattle GHG-neutral. Evangelists of regenerative agriculture argue that it could become the dominant form of cattle production. This is unlikely. Not only is the scientific community not sold on its climate benefits, but the system cannot be scaled up to supply low-cost beef to low-cost retailers and restaurants like Burger King. According to Matthew Hayek, Ph.D., who studies the environmental impacts of our food system at New York University, there simply isn’t enough land in the U.S. to graze all those cows.

For the commodity beef producers, meanwhile, their only option is to find ways of cutting emissions within existing production chains. Increasingly, they have resorted to changing cows’ diets to try and reduce their carbon footprint. Studies have shown, for instance, that feeding cows seaweed can potentially reduce methane emissions by upwards of 60 percent. The industry has been quick to use these studies to boast that they are part of the solution to global climate change.

But these methane reductions are theoretical, marginal, and impractical. Globally, most cows eat a standard diet. It is unclear that feed additives can be produced affordably at scale. Enormous monocultures of algae required for cattle feed may also have serious ecological costs. And, like Burger King’s sustainability claims, these solutions focus primarily on the “finishing” stage of production. To put it simply, there’s no such thing as a zero-emissions cow, and even a reduced-emissions cow produces far more GHGs than other protein sources. And none of this addresses the cattle industry’s other ecological impacts, like deforestation and contamination of waterways. This solution is also incompatible with regenerative agriculture: feed additives require standardization and scaled mass confinement, exactly the thing regenerative grazing is supposed to eliminate.

Big Beef is trying to put lipstick on the, er, cow. The emerging scientific consensus is that beef production needs to be massively reduced globally, and diets need to adapt if we’re to keep food production within planetary limits.

Meanwhile, the entire meat industry now faces heightened criticism unrelated to GHGs. Recently, we’ve seen packers strong-arm vulnerable workers into COVID-19 “superspreader” slaughterhouses. We’ve seen the industry respond to production bottlenecks by “depopulating” (industry-speak for killing) millions of farm animals. We’ve seen hurricanes dump millions of gallons of livestock manure into drinking water. Now add this to the butcher’s bill: agriculture is responsible for half of all zoonotic disease and a full quarter of all infectious diseases since 1940.

This moment of crisis should be a moment of transformation, not greenwashing. Whatever consumers choose to order at Burger King (we recommend the meat-free, actually low-impact Impossible Burger), we should not applaud solutions that trivialize the scale and nature of the problem. Big Beef must be regulated to ensure that its workers are safe and that the price of its product reflects its true cost to the public, workers, future generations, and animals. It should be taxed, and those monies should be invested in public projects aimed at environmental sustainability, GHG reduction, and the development of cellular agriculture that would allow consumers to eat beef without the cows and their burps. And, ultimately, industrial animal agriculture should be eliminated.

In the meantime, being a conscientious consumer is hard. We all make compromises. But if you think that eating Burger King’s “low emissions” burger is a real solution, you’re the sucker. Want to save the planet? Opt for the salad. It’s that simple.

Soaring methane emissions threaten to put climate change goals out of reach

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/soaring-methane-emissions-threaten-put-climate-change-goals-out-reach-n1233831

Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas.

Image:

Environmentalists say that agriculture and transportation activities have boosted the amount of Methane in Earth’s atmosphere.Dago Galdieri / Bloomberg via Getty ImagesJuly 14, 2020, 4:17 PM PDTBy Denise Chow

Earth’s climate crisis is starting to look even worse than scientists had feared — in part because of just how much meat we eat and how we get around.

Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas. The increased methane, combined with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, could warm Earth’s atmosphere by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century — significantly above the levels that scientists have warned could be catastrophic for millions of people around the world.

“This completely overshoots our budget to stay below 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming,” said Benjamin Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Poulter is an author on both studies published Tuesday, one in the journal Earth System Science Data and the other in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Poulter and his colleagues found that since 2000, the biggest increases in methane emissions came from agricultural activities — particularly from livestock, such as cattle and sheep — and the fossil fuel industry, which includes coal mining as well as oil and gas production.

Human activities account for about 60 percent of global methane emissions, according to the researchers. Agriculture makes up roughly two-thirds of that, with fossil fuel production and use contributing most of the rest.

JULY 14, 202002:01

In the new studies, researchers analyzed methane emissions from 2000 through 2017 — the latest year for which complete global methane figures are available — and found that a record 600 million tons of methane were released into the atmosphere in 2017. Annual emissions of methane have also increased by 9 percent since the early 2000s, a pace that could contribute to more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100.

report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 highlighted that the planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century; it used 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels as a threshold beyond which the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and sea-level rise, become life-threatening for tens of millions of people around the world.

Another author on both studies, Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said the amount of methane released into the atmosphere since 2000 is roughly equivalent to adding 350 million more cars on the road.

In 2017, methane emissions from agriculture rose by nearly 11 percent from the 2000-06 average, while methane from fossil fuels jumped by nearly 15 percent compared to the early 2000s.

Methane is released into the atmosphere when coal, oil and natural gas are mined and transported, but microbes also emit it in low-oxygen environments.

“Any place where there is little to no oxygen — wetlands, rice paddies, landfills, the gut of a cow — are all sources of methane,” Jackson said.

Recommended

DATA GRAPHICSCoronavirus deaths: U.S map shows number of fatalities compared to confirmed cases

DATA GRAPHICSGraphic: Coronavirus deaths in the U.S., per day

Overall, methane makes up a much smaller percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions than carbon dioxide does, but it’s of particular concern to scientists because methane’s molecular structure makes it more readily able to absorb thermal radiation.

“Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it’s much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide,” Poulter said, which makes the gas a key factor in global warming.

To curb methane emissions, countries need to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, in addition to reducing the number of harmful leaks from pipelines and wells, Jackson said.

Scientists are also studying how to minimize methane emissions in agricultural practices, such as altering water levels in rice paddies and experimenting with changes in the diets of cattle and sheep to reduce the amount of methane belched from their digestive systems. Burger King recently announced that it is adding lemongrass to the diet of its cows to reduce methane emissions with a lower-carb feeding regimen.

But slowing greenhouse gas emissions will also require bigger changes in human behavior, Jackson said.

“Diet matters,” Jackson said. “Here in the U.S., we have one of the highest rates of red meat consumption in the world. We don’t have to stop eating red meat necessarily, but eating less meat or eating more fish and chicken instead of beef will reduce emissions, too.”

And while the coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in significant decreases in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 — primarily from economic slowdowns and lockdowns that sharply reduced air travel and other transportation — similar declines are not anticipated with methane.

“Our farmers are still producing food, oil and gas production hasn’t fallen much yet, and methane plays only a tiny part in the transportation sector,” Jackson said. “So while we may see a small decrease this year because of the coronavirus, methane emissions over the last decade are marching upward. And at this rate, we won’t see peak methane emissions any time soon.”

Why Are Cows Meat, Pigs Pork, Turkeys Turkey, and Tunas Tuna?


Marc Bekoff Ph.D.

Animal Emotions https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202006/why-are-cows-meat-pigs-pork-turkeys-turkey-and-tunas-tuna

A 12-year-old asked, after his mother told him animals don’t have feelings.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Names and labels used for “food animals” are psychological ploys to distance people from their meals and reduce cognitive dissonance.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a 12-year-old boy (Erwin) who was concerned and confused about the names and labels that are used to refer to so-called “food animals.” He asked, “Why are cows meat, pigs pork, turkeys turkey, and tunas tuna?” The COVID-19 pandemic is calling attention to the lives and plight of a wide variety of nonhuman animals. He had read about the horrific conditions at pork-producing meatpacking plants and, while he knew that what we call pork had previously been a sentient pig, he hadn’t really thought much about it.I reminded him that the meat and pork industries are more appropriately called the cow and pig industries, that a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich is really a pig, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, and that the real question at hand is “Who’s for dinner?” rather than “What’s for dinner”? A few other email exchanges showed me he clearly understood what I was writing. 

Erwin also mentioned that when he asked his mother this same question, she casually told him that animals don’t really have emotions or feelings, and “These words are used are for marketing and people don’t want to come to terms with the fact they are eating a cow or a pig.” Erwin wondered, rightfully, why birds, fish, and invertebrates who are eaten usually called by name, for who they are—chicken, turkey, goose, tuna, halibut, lobster—and wanted to know more about the names and labels that are used to refer to nonhumans who are regular features on countless humans’ meal plans. He also wondered why lamb chops are a popular food item, and I couldn’t say much about it given that it’s well known that sheep are fully sentient beings just like cows, pigs, and other mammalian “food animals,” but I was pleased he asked. I once asked a hunter why deer meat is called venison, but people freely talk about elk steaks. He said something like, “Many people don’t want to face the fact they’re eating a cute deer like Bambi.” 

Why are cows meat, pigs pork, sausage or bacon, chimpanzees bushmeat, turkeys turkey, chickens chicken, tunas tuna, and lobsters lobster?

Of course, there are many other examples of misleading speciesist names and labels used to refer to “food animals.” Indeed, they have become global memes. In my emails to Erwin I mentioned a few things that are easy to summarize. I began by writing that his mother was right on the mark—most people don’t want to know they’re eating cows or pigs, but don’t really think about who they’re eating when birds, fish, or some invertebrates are on the menu. Numerous people think that animals whose species’ identities aren’t hidden or disguised aren’t really sentient or emotional and they’re all the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth, given what solid science has shown us about birds, fish, and numerous invertebrates.2,3 We also know that mammals, birds, and fish don’t like being caged and brutally abused in ways that defy any compassion or empathy at all, that birds and fish don’t necessarily suffer less than mammals, and that they have unique personalities. Animal sentience isn’t science fiction and animal suffering isn’t an enigma

 Tito White, with permission

Walter, a rescued turkey, at Luvin’ Arms Animal SanctuarySource: Tito White, with permission

I also mentioned that the words and labels that are used are very effective psychological ploys that distance people from their meals and reduce cognitive dissonance for those who fully know—or should know—who they’re consuming, but want to forget about it. He fully understood what I meant. Also, some people know the animals suffer and still can’t stop themselves from eating them—eating misery—and can’t resolve the “meat paradox” by not doing what they well know causes pain, suffering, and death. 

The 3 Ds that influence meal plans: How denying and distancing work to reduce dissonance.

I went on to tell Erwin that his mother was incorrect in saying that nonhumans don’t have emotions or feelings. I wondered if she really meant this or if it was her way of denying and distancing herself from who she was eating. As incredible as it sounds, there still are people who deny that nonhumans are sentient and emotional beings. They’re clearly stuck in the darkest of dark ages and maintain that we don’t really know if other animals have emotions. These denialists go on to falsely and inanely claim that there’s no science to support the idea that other animals are sentient and emotional beings, so therefore they’re not. I won’t belabor the crude logic here, but it really does exist. For example, recently, The Ontario Federation of Agriculture made this absurd claim, despite clear scientific evidence that numerous nonhumans have rich and deep emotional lives.I told Erwin that the real question at hand is why emotions have evolved, not if they have evolved, and that they matter very much to the individuals experiencing them. article continues after advertisement

I also explained to Erwin that the vast majority of “food animals” produced by massive industries are numbered, rather than named. This is another way for people to distance themselves from who the animals—each and every individual—truly are. Animals on sanctuaries, such as turkey Walter (above), are invariably named, and this helps to establish close and enduring relationships and recognize every single one as the unique individual they are. Of course, unnamed animals aren’t less sentient than named individuals. All should be referred to as “who,” rather than “it,” “which,” or “that.”

Finally, I mentioned to Erwin that many people who choose to unmind “food animals” and falsely rob them of their emotional lives don’t hesitate to attribute rich and active minds and a wide variety of emotions to companion animals with whom they share their homes. Uminding is a ruse by which some people claim certain animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, and others who wind up on humans’ plates are dumb and don’t have feelings, and this ploy allows them to eat and otherwise use and abuse them without a care in the world. While many people don’t like to admit it, in terms of harms, pain, suffering, and death, dogs and cats don’t really suffer more than individuals who find themselves on humans’ meal plans. When people ask me how can I work in China helping to rescue moon bears from the bear bile industry knowing that people there eat dogs and cats, I usually respond by politely saying something like, “Well, I live in the United States where people eat cows, pigs, sheep, and other fully sentient animals, and I dislike both practices. What’s the difference?”

While it may sound strange or heartless, there really isn’t a difference between eating traditional “food animals” and companion animals, because they’re all sentient and deeply suffer on the long and pain-filled journey on their way to peoples’ plates.Along these lines, in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Melanie Joy “explores the many ways we numb ourselves and disconnect from our natural empathy for farmed animals.” She came up with the term carnism “to describe the belief system that has conditioned us to eat certain animals and not others.”

Youngsters offer hope and we must listen carefully to them.

I’m pleased that Erwin wrote to me. He raised a lot of issues, many of which he was unaware were so salient, current, and on the minds of numerous people. I’m also happy that he understood what I wrote to him, or came to understand it after a few exchanges. Along the way, his mother thanked me and said she was revising her ways of thinking about animal sentience and animal emotions. I was pleased that she and Erwin could have further conversations about who we eat, how they’re labeled, and why. I thanked her and noted it was a win-win for all.article continues after advertisementhttps://4a194d60cc7be2e2f602ef76b092b970.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I’ve written a number of other essays motivated by great questions from curious youngsters.6 These discussions give me hope. We really need to listen carefully to what they’re are saying and asking. We must do the very best we can to leave future generations a more compassionate and friendlier world in which humane education and peaceful coexistence are high on the agenda.

Don’t have a cow, but Big Dairy’s climate footprint is as big as the UK’s

dairy cows with planetGrist
DOWNSIDE OF DAIRY

https://grist.org/food/dont-have-a-cow-but-big-dairys-climate-footprint-is-as-big-as-the-uks/

If dairy cows were a country, they would have the same climate impact as the entire United Kingdom. That’s according to a new analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which considered the combined annual emissions from the world’s 13 largest dairy operations in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available.

The institute’s report follows up on a similar analysis the organization undertook for 2015. That year, the IATP found that the five largest meat and dairy companies combined had emissions portfolios greater than those of some of the world’s largest oil companies, like ExxonMobil and Shell. Most of the emissions were from meat, but this latest report finds that dairy remains a significant and growing source of emissions: In the two years between reports, the 13 top dairy companies’ emissions grew 11 percent — a 32.3 million metric ton increase in greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions that would be released by adding an extra 6.9 million cars to the road for a year.

Dairy emissions come mostly from the cows themselves — specifically, from their notorious burps. Fermentation processes in cows’ stomachs produce the byproduct methane, which doesn’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but absorbs more heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says methane from ruminants like cows are an important contributor to the increase of atmospheric methane levels.

Shefali Sharma, director of IATP Europe and author of the new study, said it was staggering to see dairy’s increase in emissions, especially since it occurred in the two years after the Paris Agreement was negotiated. “We’re supposed to be going in the opposite direction,” she told Grist.

The report points to consolidation and rising production as the main culprits for the increased emissions. From 2015 to 2017, the 13 companies used mergers and acquisitions to expand geographically and subsume smaller farms. As the companies got bigger, their production increased by 8 percent, which led to the emissions hike.

The dairy industry takes issue with the report’s framing, chalking the emissions increase up to an “accounting change.” As smaller farms were absorbed by the big companies, the industry argued, their production and greenhouse gas emissions got wrapped into the 13 largest producers’ emissions numbers.

“These are not new emissions,” the International Dairy Federation and the Global Dairy Platform said in a joint statement responding to the IATP report.

At the same time, the companies haven’t done much to help researchers figure out their net greenhouse gas output; none are required to disclose their climate impacts, and only five of the 13 publicly report their emissions. Zero of them have committed to reducing the overall emissions footprint of their dairy supply chains.

“There’s no transparency, not even basic production numbers,” Sharma told Grist. To calculate the companies’ emissions for the IATP report, Sharma used production estimates calculated by the IFCN, a dairy research network, and calculated each firm’s associated carbon emissions using an accounting method established by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Instead of focusing on total emissions, the biggest dairy producers have tried to paint a different picture of their climate impact. The IATP report says companies like Danone have drawn attention to something they call “emissions intensity”: the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each liter of milk.

According to Sharma, focusing on emissions intensity allows dairy producers to make more milk, more efficiently, and then say they’re reducing their climate impacts. Even if the total number of cows increases (which it has), and even if cumulative emissions go up (which they have), the industry can mask these planet-warming effects by emphasizing greater greenhouse gas efficiency per unit of milk produced. For example, a 2019 report from the FAO — which was co-authored by the Global Dairy Platform — says the dairy industry’s emissions intensity, measured in greenhouse gas per kilogram of milk, declined by nearly 11 percent from 2005 to 2015.

However, the same section of the report also says that “increased production efficiency is typically associated with a higher level of absolute emissions (unless animal numbers are decreasing).” The Global Dairy Platform acknowledged this in its statement responding to the IATP report, saying that as the industry increased its production by 30 percent globally between 2005 and 2015, it could have increased its absolute emissions by 38 percent. But because of “improvements” to increase efficiency, absolute emissions only rose by 18 percent.

Sharma says it’s a distraction to focus on emissions intensity. “You’ve got to reduce your overall emissions, it doesn’t matter about your ‘per unit,’” she told Grist. To her, that means producing less milk — with fewer cows.

On top of the climate change impacts, the IATP report also highlights the impacts of big dairy operations on small- and medium-sized farms. In each of the world’s four main dairy-producing regions — North America, Europe, India, and New Zealand — bankruptcy and farm losses increased between 2015 and 2017.

In the United States, 94 percent of family farms in dairy have closed since the 1970s. Between 2014 and 2019, Wisconsin — America’s self-proclaimed “Dairyland” — lost more than a quarter of its 10,000 dairy farms.

In the absence of governmental supply management policies, the mega-dairies that incorporate these small farms are able to flood the market with milk, often for export, driving down dairy prices and crowding out small holders or reducing their income. They are also often unaccountable for environmental pollution, from manure runoff from fields to spills from manure storage lagoons to air pollution.

To remediate the situation, Sharma doesn’t think people need to give up milk; she just wants the dairy industry to radically change its business model. “You could totally still have farms with livestock on them,” she told Grist. “It just wouldn’t be the vast quantity of livestock that we see today.”

According to the IATP report, a comprehensive set of government regulations to decrease dairy production would come with all sorts of co-benefits — for farmers and the climate. A supply management system to lower dairy output could allow companies to pay farmers better wages and allow the government to reinvest in less emissions-intensive systems of small-scale farming. These reforms could help strengthen rural economies and protect ecological systems. And ending subsidies to the largest dairy operations could free up funds that could go toward support and job training for out-of-work dairy workers.

To enact these policies, Sharma suggests consumers think beyond switching to locally produced dairy or almond milk. “In terms of individual demand, that’s just not going to move the needle,” she said. But calling federal elected officials about agriculture policy might. Holding global dairy corporations accountable is a political challenge, but Sharma is hopeful: “Political change is possible, it’s achievable,” she said. “We just have to create it.”

Agriculture and livestock: Are they victims or perpetrators of climate change?

June 11, 2020 /https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/news/agriculture-and-livestock-are-they-victims-or-perpetrators-climate-change-1912177
LAST MODIFIED: 01:54 AM, June 11, 2020

Though much of the world is focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels as a way to fight climate change, there are other often overlooked contributors to the conundrum resulting from climate change. Two of them are agriculture and livestock. Sure, they provide us with the food we eat every day. But cumulatively, they are also the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.

While the majority of global warming activities give off carbon dioxide, the agricultural sector primarily releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The source is mainly rice that is grown on flooded fields with depleted dissolved oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, organic matter in the soil decomposes and produces methane that escapes into the atmosphere. Rising temperatures would cause rice cultivation to release even more methane.

Another source of methane is ruminants, particularly cows and goats. As part of their digestion cycle, they expel intestinal gases, mostly methane, via belches. Methane can also escape from stored manure and organic waste in landfills. If manure is stored as a liquid or slurry in ponds, tanks or pits, it decomposes anaerobically (in the absence of air) and emits a prodigious amount of methane. However, when handled as a solid or deposited naturally on grassland, manure decomposes aerobically and creates negligible methane emissions. Ruminants, manure and rice cultivation account for almost 25 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions.

One of the methods of reducing methane emissions from rice fields, as suggested by scientists at the World Resources Institute, is to plant rice in a raised bed and flood only the furrows. This method has the potential to cut methane emissions in half.

Controlling methane emissions from ruminants is more difficult than trimming or regulating methane emissions from fossil fuels. A large number of mitigation options—namely, diet manipulation, vaccines, chemical additives and genetic selection—have been proposed. They have different efficiencies in lowering production of intestinal methane.

Methane emissions from manure depend on temperature and storage duration. Results from typical Canadian farms indicate that use of underground manure storage tanks, maintained at lower temperatures, lessens methane emissions. Additionally, farmers found that if they clean the tanks regularly, it took longer for methane-producing organisms to grow back. Consequently, methane emissions decrease substantially.

As for agriculture, according to a report of the United Nations published last year, about 50 percent of the Earth’s cultivable land is dedicated to growing crops for humans and roughly 30 percent is used to grow grain for livestock. Given how much land it takes to grow food to feed livestock, a very vocal segment of environmentalists insist that “meat is heat” and encourage consumers to go vegan.

Moreover, in line with the projected population growth, global demand for food is expected to grow by up to 70 percent in the coming decades. This substantial increase in demand would require clearing more space for agriculture and cattle grazing, so that the per capita threshold of land required for a nation to be self-sufficient in food production could be maintained. Vast swaths of the Amazon Rainforest, along with lands and forests in other places, are already being cleared for growing crops and grazing cattle. If current trends continue, most of our planet’s remaining land and forests would need to be cleared to feed the world.

Deforestation and land degradation indirectly contribute to the negative impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One of the main reasons for this is because forests are natural carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into oxygen that we breathe in. Hence, by cutting down big areas of forest without replacing the trees that are removed, we are causing an inadvertent change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Several studies indicate that planting more than two billion acres of trees could remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Trees also recharge the water table and create microclimates that increase local rainfall. In addition, deforestation puts biodiversity at risk, further undermining nature’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate, for example absorbing heavy rainfall.

Clearly, agriculture in general, and livestock in particular, contribute considerably to climate change. Nevertheless, climate change is also a major threat to the sustainability of livestock globally. An increase in air temperature as a result of global warming directly affects milk and meat production, reproductive efficiency and health of the animals. Also, excessive heat would reduce their body size and fat thickness.

Agriculture is also highly vulnerable to climate change. It is affecting food security by raising the risks to food supply due to heat waves, drought, flood, storms, soil depletion and desertification. Over the coming dozen years or so, farmers in developing countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia, will be the ones to bear the brunt of global warming, as per a recent report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.

It could, therefore, be said that agriculture and livestock farming are caught in a vicious cycle that makes them both victims and perpetrators of the harmful effects of climate change. Most of the times when agriculture perpetrates its crimes, it is not even contributing to feeding the ever-increasing world population. Instead, a good portion of the agricultural products are consumed by livestock—mostly bovines—which demonstrates this paradox.

How do we solve this complex problem? The solution obviously requires a coherent and integrated approach to climate change, energy usage and food security. Faced with global warming, competition for scarce resources, and inaction by world leaders, we, the people, have to transform the entire global food system and make it much more resource-efficient while continuously curbing its environmental impacts, including its greenhouse-gas emissions.

We also have to increase yields while curtailing dependence on agrochemicals. Besides, we should minimise food waste, cut down consumption of resource-intensive and greenhouse gas-producing foods, notably meat, and switch to climate-friendly vegetables, such as the nutritionally rich seaweed kelp. Farming kelp is beneficial for the ocean.

Furthermore, employing sustainable practices, like organic agriculture, has enormous potential to help in the fight against global warming, whereas maintaining the status quo with widespread industrial agricultural practices will continue to be terribly detrimental to the climate. In short, making agriculture and livestock industries and all associated activities sustainable is the answer to win the battle against global warming, as well as accelerate the transition to a healthier and more just society.

 

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

FOR a long time emissions from cattle have been lumped in with emissions from other sources as the same destructive forces for the planet in the global climate change narrative.

However, through research overseen by scientists including Dr Frank Mitloehner (right) from the University of California Davis and Dr Myles Allen from Oxford University, scientific consensus is starting to build around the point that livestock-related greenhouse gases are distinctively different from greenhouse gases associated with other sectors of society (more on this below).

Dr Mitloehner, an internationally recognised air quality expert, explained to the Alltech One virtual conference on Friday night (Australian time) that the concept of accounting for methane according to its Global Warming Potential, as opposed to just its volume of CO2 equivalent, which showed that not all greenhouse gases are created equal, has now made it all the way to the International Panel on Climate Change.

However, despite increasing awareness and understanding at a scientific level, the message has still not been taken up by the mainstream media.

“What I find interesting is that the one missing entity in this whole discussion so far has been the media,” he told Alltech president and CEO Dr Mark Lyons in a live streamed video interview.

“I have not seen any major reporting on this even though it’s such a hot topic.

“I mean, the world talks about what the impact of our food systems are on our environmental footprint.

“Now, this is a major new narrative. And to me, it’s very unusual and it’s very confusing as to why the same outlets that have touted this topic as being so paramount are not talking about these new findings whatsoever.

“So to me that’s problematic. And we have to think about why that is. Have we not explained it right? Is it too early for them to report about it? I don’t know, but this narrative is not going away.

“You will see it will gain momentum, and it will become the new reality.”

Why all greenhouse gases are not created equal

Dr Mitloehner said to date the global climate change debate has tended to focus only on how much greenhouse gases are emitted by different sources.

Most discussion fails to recognise that certain sectors of society, such as forestry and agriculture, also serve as a sink for greenhouse gases.

Climate debate focuses on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted each year but tends to ignore the 550 tera-grams sequested by sinks like agriculture and forestry (right).

After the Kyoto protocol, the climate change debate centred on the 560 tera-grams of methane emitted into the atmosphere each year from all sources, including fossil fuel production and use, agriculture and waste, biomass burning, wetlands and other natural emissions.

“That is where most people stop the discussion, even though they shouldn’t,” he explained.

“Because in addition to emissions putting methane into the atmosphere, we also have sinks on the right side of this graph (above).

“And these sinks amount to a very respectable total number of 550 teragrams.

“So in other words, we have 560 teragrams of methane emitted, meaning put into the atmosphere, but then we have 550 teragrams of methane taken out of the atmosphere.

So in other words, the net emissions per year that we are dealing with is not 560, but it’s actually 10.

“Yet everybody talks about 560.”

In a biogenic carbon cycle, constant livestock herds or decreasing livestock herds over time did not add additional carbon to the atmosphere, he explained.

The carbon emitted by animals is recycled carbon. It came from atmospheric CO2, captured by plants, eaten by animals and then belched back out into the atmosphere, after a while becoming CO2 again.

Methane is a heat-trapping, potent greenhouse gas, and he stressed he was not suggesting that “it didn’t matter”.

But the key question for livestock is do ruminant herds add to additional methane, meaning additional carbon in the atmosphere which leads to additional warming?

The answer he said was clearly “no”.

Oxford University authors including Professor Myles Allen have shown that biogenic methane is not the same as fossil methane.

It is the same chemically, but the origin and fate “are totally, drastically different”.

“As long as we have constant herds or even decreasing herds, we are not adding additional methane, and hence not additional warming.

“This is a total change in the narrative around livestock. And I think this will be the narrative in the years to come.”

A chart documenting the size of the US cattle herd since 1867 shows it has decreased to around 90 million beef cattle and 9 million dairy cattle, down from peaks of 140 million beef cattle in the 1950s and 25 million dairy cattle in the 1970s.

The Australian cattle herd has similarly decreased from a peak of over 33 million cattle in 1976 to around 24 million today.

“We’re clearly see a decreasing number of livestock over the last few decades meaning with respect to livestock numbers, we have not cost an increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but indeed we have decreased the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere,” he said.

By contrast emissions from fossil fuel extractions were not part of a cycle, but “a one-way street”, because the amount of CO2 sent into the atmosphere in this process by far overpowered the potential sinks that could take up CO2, such as oceans, soils or plants.

“So here we have a one-way street. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the main culprit of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the resulting warming.

“I have yet to see a climate scientist who would say that it’s the cows that are a primary culprit of warming. Most of them will agree that the primary culprit is the use of fossil fuels.”

“However, people critical of animal agriculture always point at cows, and cattle, and other livestock species. And they feel that this is a very powerful tool to ostracize animal agriculture as we know it.”

Not only were cattle not the primary culprit of global warming, they were also potentially part of the solution, as an explanation of stock gases versus flow gases demonstrated.

Long-lived climate pollutants such as Co2 were referred to as ‘stock’ gases because they last in the atmosphere for 1000 years. “Every time you put it into the atmosphere, you add to the existing stock of that gas,” he explained.

Methane (CH4) was a ‘flow’. Provided it was coming from a constant source, what was being put into the atmosphere was also being taken out.

“The only time that you really add new additional methane to the atmosphere with the livestock herd is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or if you increase your herd sizes.

“Only then do you actually add new additional methane and thus new additional warming.

“So please remember there are big differences between long-lived stock gases such as CO2 or nitrous oxide versus short-lived flow gases such as methane.”

He invited the audience to imagine a scenario where methane emissions from cattle were decreased by 35 percent.

If this could be achieved, it would have the effect of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and create a net cooling effect.

“If we find ways to reduce methane, then we counteract other sectors of societies that do contribute – and significantly so – to global warming, such as flying, driving, running air conditioners, and so on.

“So if we were to reduce methane, we could induce global cooling. And I think that our livestock sector has the potential to do it. And we are already seeing examples where that happens.”

He offered several examples of how the agricultural sector has already had success in reducing methane.

A few years ago the California legislature wrote a law called SB 1383 mandating a 40 percent reduction of methane to be achieved by the year 2030.

California’s farms and ranches have reduced greenhouse gases by 25pc since the laws were enacted.

This was achieved by using “a carrot rather than cane approach”, by rewarding farmers and ranchers who wanted to reduce emissions by giving them financial incentives to invest in anaerobic digesters or alternative manure management practices.

“I know if we can do it here, it can be done in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world.

“And if we indeed achieve such reductions of greenhouse gas, particularly of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, then that means that our livestock sector will be on a path for climate neutrality– on a path to climate neutrality. And that, to me, is a lifetime objective.”

Agriculture needs to work harder to tell its story

Dr Mitloehner said it was important the industry work harder to ensure the public understands the science around cattle production and greenhouse gas emissions.

“I feel that it is actually critical to get what we find in our research environment translated and communicated with the public sector.

“Because only if what we find makes its way to the light of the day, only then it matters”

It was also important that the public discussion used accurate and not misleading numbers around livestock emissions.

It is often stated that livestock emissions represent 14 percent to even as high as 50 percent of total emissions, but Dr Mitloehner said this did not reflect actual livestock emissions in developed countries such as the US were the number was closer to just 3 percent of all US emissions.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

Comment

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.

Scientists understand cattle not climate villains, but media still missing message

COMMENTS

Methane’s Rising: What Can We Do to Bring It Down?

ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES  Editors’ Vox


Reducing methane emissions is critical for addressing climate warming, but which are the easiest and most cost-effective ways to do this?

By 

Methane emissions have increased dramatically over the past decade and a half, significantly contributing to climate warming. A recent article in Reviews of Geophysics examines how to measure methane emissions accurately from different sources, and explores various mitigation and emission reduction strategies. Here, one of the authors explains the causes of increased emissions, the imperative to address this problem, and what we might be able to do about it.

What are the main sources and sinks of atmospheric methane?

Methane comes from many sources. Roughly two-fifths of emissions are natural, such as wetlands, and three-fifths are human-caused, such as leaks from fossil fuel industries, ruminant farm animals, landfills, rice growing, and biomass burning.

Landfill site in Kuwait
Landfill site in Kuwait. Credit: D. Lowry, from Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 3

The main sink for methane is destruction by hydroxyl (OH) in the sunlit air, especially in the tropics in the moist air a few kilometers above the surface. Other smaller sinks are chlorine in the air, and destruction by bacteria in the soil.Why has there been a sharp rise in atmospheric methane over the past few decades?

Methane emissions rose quickly in the 1980s as the natural gas industry was rapidly expanding, especially in the former Soviet Union. Then the growth rate slowed and the methane budget (the balance between emissions and their destruction) seemed to have reached equilibrium in the early years of this century. However, in 2007, unexpectedly, the amount of methane in the air started growing again, with very strong growth since 2014, much of it in tropical regions [Nisbet et al., 2019].Simultaneously, there was a marked change in the isotopic composition of atmospheric methane. For two centuries, the proportion of Carbon-13 in the methane in the air had been growing, reflecting the input from fossil fuels and fires, which is relatively rich in C-13, but from 2007, the proportion of C-12 methane has risen [Nisbet et al., 2016].

There is no clear agreement why this rise in methane began again in 2007, nor why it accelerated from 2014, nor why the carbon isotopes are shifting. One hypothesis is that biological sources of methane have increased; for example, population growth has increased farming in the tropics, and climate warming has made tropical wetlands both warmer and wetter. Another possible hypothesis is that the main sink has declined; if true, this would be profoundly worrying as OH is the ‘policeman of the air’ cleaning up so many polluting chemical species. A third hypothesis is more complex, speculating that fires (which give off methane rich in C-13) have declined while other sources have risen. Of course, these hypotheses are non-exclusive and all these processes could be happening at the same time.

Why is a focus on reducing methane emissions critical for addressing climate warming?

Methane is an extremely important greenhouse gas. In its own right, it is the second-most important human-caused climate warmer after carbon dioxide (CO2), but it also has a lot of spin-off effects in the atmosphere that also cause warming.In the 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, warming from methane was assessed at about 0.5 watts per square meter (Wm-2) (the measure of solar irradiance) compared to the year 1750. That’s large, and when all its spin off impacts are added, the warming impact of methane was around 1 Wm-2 (IPCC 2013 report Fig. 8.17), which is significant when compared to about 1.7 Wm-2 warming from CO2. Sadly, both numbers of course have now much increased.

Methane’s atmospheric lifetime (the amount in the air divided by the annual destruction) is less than a decade. So, if methane emissions are quickly reduced, we will see a resulting reduction in climate warming from methane within the next few years. Over the longer-term CO2 is the key warming gas but reducing that will take much longer, so cutting methane is an obvious first step while we try to redesign the world’s economy to cut CO2. It’s rather like a dentist giving a quick acting pain reliever while making plans for a root canal procedure.What might be the some of the easiest or most cost-effective ways to cut methane emissions from different sources?

Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation on methane emissions
Simple box model to show the potential impact of mitigation. The purple line approximates emission levels that would be compliant with the Paris Agreement. The blue line represents no change in emissions after 2020. The other lines show a 10% (orange line), 20% (green line) and 30% (red line) cut in emissions spread linearly over the period 2020–2055 followed by stable emissions. Credit: Paul Griffiths, in Nisbet et al. [2020], Figure 22 left panel

We need to identify the major human-caused sources that we can realistically change quickly.Some relating to the fossil fuel industry are easily identified and already subject to regulatory control in most producing nations, so it should not be difficult to monitor and achieve better behavior. For example, gas industry leaks represent lost profit, while deliberate methane venting in the oil industry is simply lazy design. Meanwhile, the coal industry is rapidly becoming uncompetitive with renewable electricity.

Tropical fires are a particular problem and cause terrible pollution. Many fires are either unnecessary (such as crop waste fires and stubble burning) or very damaging (such as human-lit savanna grassfires and forest fires) so there is a very strong argument for using both financial incentives and legislation to halt fires across the tropics, although in some places there are strong vested interests.

Landfills are another significant source. Although these are highly regulated in Europe and parts of the Americas, in megacities in the tropics there are many immense landfills, often unregulated and often on fire. Just putting a half-meter of soil on top would greatly cut emissions.

And what are some of the most challenging types methane sources to address?

Changing food habits is perhaps the biggest challenge. Much methane is breathed out from ruminant animals such as cows, water buffalo, sheep, and goats. Across much of tropical Africa and India, cows tend to live in the open and their manure is rapidly oxidized so it is not an especially large methane source. But in Europe, China and the United States, cattle are often housed in barns with large anaerobic methane-producing manure facilities, that do make methane. These manure lagoon emissions should be tackled.

We could, of course, all give up food from ruminants and methane emissions would drop, but it would be countered by an increasing demand for crops. More intensive arable farming, especially in the tropics, would be needed, and likely achieved by plowing up forest and savannas, which would increase CO2 emissions, and also require increasing the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

Reducing meat and dairy consumption to only ‘organic’ grass-reared animals seems like a sensible first step for people in wealthier nations. But this needs to be seen in the context of broader issues in less developed nations. Population growth needs to be slowed if agricultural emissions are to be reduced: better schools, especially for girls, improved healthcare, and better pensions would reduce population growth and thus the burden on human food production. A focus on societal issues would ultimately address climate problems too.

Can we be optimistic that efforts to reduce methane emissions will help to meet the targets of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement?

If I’d been asked this question three months ago, I would have said “no”. Methane is rising much faster than anticipated in the scenarios that underlay the Paris Agreement. As I write we are several months in to the global COVID-19 epidemic and it is almost as if nature itself has so tragically hit the pause button. I am one of many scientists trying to measure the impact of the lockdown on CO2 and methane emissions. As we try to rebuild and find our way through the post-epidemic recovery, there will be great changes, and perhaps in many countries a pause for thought, and a chance to choose a new way forward.

—Euan Nisbet (E.Nisbet@rhul.ac.uk), Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

Citation: Nisbet, E. (2020), Methane’s rising: What can we do to bring it down? , Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO143615. Published on 04 May 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Goldman Sachs says the only other commodity ‘looking as precarious as oil’ is livestock

KEY POINTS
  • Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.
  • Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
  • It has wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will establish a "coordination center" to help livestock and poultry producers hurt by coronavirus-induced meatpacking plant closures.
Dairy cows stand in a pen at a cattle farm in West Canaan, Ohio on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.

The forecast comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many countries across the globe to effectively shut down.

It has created an unprecedented demand shock in energy markets, with U.S. oil prices tumbling into negative territory for the first time ever last month.

Both major oil benchmarks have registered modest gains in recent weeks. However, Brent crude futures and U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures are still down more than 50% on the start of 2020.

“Investors don’t want to hear anything about oil. They have been beaten up, they are done with this space (and) it is going to take a lot to get them to come back,” Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, said during a video call with reporters last week.

The coronavirus outbreak has also wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.

As a result, Currie said that he believes the only other commodity market “looking as precarious as oil” was livestock.

“They both share something in common: You do damage to the supply, it takes a while to bring it back online again,” he said.

“We had a problem with livestock going into this … We now have a very serious problem,” Currie added.

Food insecurity

Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The restrictions, which vary but broadly include school closures, bans on public gatherings and social distancing, have forced many restaurants to close their doors.

This collapse in demand from the hospitality industry has reportedly forced some U.S. farmers to let fresh fruit and vegetables perish, while dairy farmers have had to pour excess milk away.

coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
Packages of various meats are seen in a supermarket refrigerator in New York City. As the coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
John Lamparski | SOPA Images }| Getty Images

Meanwhile, an uptick of Covid-19 cases in meat processing plants has led to some closures and a slowdown in production. As a result, there are growing concerns about whether the industry can meet demand for pork, beef and chicken.

At the same time, food banks have reported massive shortages. Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the U.S., has warned that the number of “food insecure children” in the world’s largest economy could hit 18 million as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is higher than the record 17.2 million recorded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the height of the recession in 2009.

What do oil and meat have in common?

Analysts at Bank of America Securities said in a research note published late last month that livestock farmers in the U.S. meat industry were likely “to suffer tremendous financial burdens” as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Pork processors were expected to bear the brunt of plant closures, the analysts said, while beef processing was thought to be in a better position.

The analysts at Bank of America Securities stopped short of warning about the prospect of empty meat cases at the grocery store anytime soon.

But, they did stress those concerns “could become greater” if plants were unable to re-open.

A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump said via Twitter on Saturday that the U.S. government would start to purchase $3 billion in agricultural products from American farmers over the coming days.

He referenced the USDA program, “Farmers to Families Food Box,” that aligns with the department’s $19 billion relief plan announced last month.

Goldman’s Currie said herds had been “tremendously reduced” on both cattle and hogs in recent weeks.

“And what do oil and meats have in common? They are big inputs into inflation in the emerging markets,” he continued. “These are going to be the two big commodity stories I think are going to be important as we look out into 2021 and beyond.”