The Green New Deal is a big deal. Rookie members of Congress, experienced members who should know better, and some presidential candidates, think it is a good deal. However, the uninformed reasoning that this proposal depends upon, is terribly flawed. One facet of it that is particularly concerning, is the plan to eliminate “farting cows”. As a rancher, I am appalled at the ignorance of those who are suggesting that cow flatulence is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases, which; if true, would make them responsible, to some degree, for man’s influence on climate change.
We have two problems here: 1. There is a gross misunderstanding, by Green New Deal proponents, of fundamental science. Methane generated by cows, is not the result of flatulence; the gas comes out of the front end of the cow: a result of the digestive process of ruminants. Ruminants, including cattle, are four stomached animals who consume forage, regurgitate it, chew it again as their cud, then re-swallow it. This regurgitation process is where, and when, methane is generated; it has nothing to do with farting. Which end of the cow emits the gas, really doesn’t matter. The ignorance of those who would eliminate the cow, matters a lot. 2. If methane is an important factor, then an appropriate question would be: How much is now generated, compared to that historically produced in 1492? If numbers of ruminants existing today are similar to the population that lived in North America in 1492, it is hard to argue that cattle are responsible for increased green-house gas emissions.
While we have a fairly accurate estimate of current cattle numbers, and while some estimates of historical bison (buffalo) numbers approach those cattle numbers; we really don’t know how many elk, moose, antelope, and deer were present before Columbus showed up. We do know that the buffalo are nearly gone, and that the numbers of the other species are reduced. We also know, that animals, and landscapes, evolve in concert with each other. This is especially true of grasslands, and grazing animals. Remove the animals, succession occurs, and grass is replaced by brush, so it is logical to assume that grasslands, and the critters that used them were, in equilibrium in 1492.
Much of that grassland has gone away in the more than the 500 years that have passed. Urban and rural development has taken some; and, vast acreages have been converted to farmland, producing crops largely consumed by people. If one can assume that just as the ruminants that existed in the fifteenth century were in balance with the available forage, it makes sense that the same is true today. The difference is that total grassland acreage now, is significantly smaller than it was in 1492.
Bottom line: We don’t have accurate historical numbers of grazing animals, but it is logical to conclude that, given a diminished acreage of grasslands, today’s ruminant numbers are also down, therefore, are not producing more greenhouse gasses than were produced in the past by ruminant wildlife.
A recent UC Davis study has shown that cattle are minor contributors to greenhouse gas production, without taking into account that cattle have replaced much of the grazing wildlife, including nearly all of the millions of bison, that historically grazed our grasslands. If one factors in that tradeoff, net greenhouse gas production from cattle, has to be near, or below, zero.
For those who would like to go back to the good old days, eliminate cattle, and restore historical wildlife numbers, it must be remembered that grazing species are generally migratory, and migration in a landscape segmented by railroads, superhighways, huge urban areas, and rural housing development, is no longer a reasonable option.
Cattle serve mankind well. They provide many products, including food and clothing, that benefit us all. They do this by consuming a renewable resource, grass, that has no practical alternative use. They also are capable of managing fuel loads, by controlling grass levels and preventing the encroachment of brush, thereby reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from a major source: wildfire.
We need an intelligent, informed approach to the environmental challenges facing our nation and the world. We need to ask the right questions, then seek answers to those questions, and solutions to the problems identified, using sound science. So far, the Green New Deal, fails to measure up.
Walt Giacomini resides in Rio Dell.