Cattle, climate and the Amazon wildfire
“The Earth’s lungs are on fire. I’m so scared for this planet that I don’t even want to have children. I’m going to do my part to curb climate change by eliminating red meat from my diet.”
I read this statement a few days ago on Instagram. It was posted by an old classmate of mine, who grew up in our rural South Dakota community, where cows outnumber people four to one.
The statement mirrors a frenzy of recent social media posts where people are distraught about wildfires occurring in the Amazon rainforest. Folks are blaming cattle production and timber industries for the blaze, and the hashtag #PrayforAmazonia is trending.
More on that later.
The inaccurate link between cattle and climate change continues to plague our industry.
We simply cannot unring the erroneous bell from the U.N. 2006 study, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” that claimed beef production was the main culprit (ahead of transportation and energy) in greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, the mainstream rhetoric appears to be that eating a plant-based diet is the solution to environmental concerns. This messaging is so dangerous for many reasons.
First, without careful supplementation, a plant-based diet is not complete. As a society, our physical and mental health will suffer without nutrient-dense food like beef in our diets.
Second, research conducted at the University of California, Davis shows that even if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%. And if the practice of Meatless Monday were to be adopted by all Americans, there would be a reduction of only 0.5%.
Third, cattle aren’t just beef-makers; they produce by-products, too. From medicinal to leather goods to the makeup beloved by Instagram influencers who are so worried about eating a hamburger and its impact on the planet, cattle benefit our lives each and every day, whether we want to admit it or not.
Fourth, cattle grazing benefits the land. From up-cycling inedible cellulosic material like grass to aerating the soil with their hooves to fertilizing the land with their manure to recycling water to reducing the spread of wildfire by grazing brush, cattle play a major role in maintaining grasslands and forested areas, too.
And that brings me back to the rain forest. Scroll through your newsfeed, and you’ll see article after article blaming agriculture and timber on the blaze in the Amazon.
I wondered if much like controlled burns (not a hands off approach to the land) were practiced in Brazil much like they are here in the United States.
In an article titled, “The Amazon Rainforest: Why you don’t need to worry,” Ellie McFarland for 71 Republic writes, “Looking at the pictures of the burning Amazon, a sense of tragedy and loss hits most people in the face. But if you look closer, in most of the pictures, it isn’t actually the forest that’s burning. Most pictures show flat grasslands adjacent to or between patches of the Amazon Rainforest burning. In pictures that do show parts of the Amazon ablaze, it’s very noticeable that the vast majority of trees are left standing. Healthy trees don’t typically burn in forest fires. It’s the brush and dead fuel that’s burning. This is an entirely different process. It clears out brush that prevents new trees from growing and which can make forest fires worse in the future. These fires also cause ash, which provides the necessary nutrients for saplings to flourish in their new space.”
Now, I’m not an expert on the rain forest or beef production in Brazil. But I can testify to the things I do as a producer in the United States to care for my land and my livestock. In this country, our sustainability is highlighted by the fact that we efficiently produce 20% of the world’s beef with just 9% of the cows.
For example, our cattle are currently grazing in fields of sorghum sudangrass, a forage that exceeds the height of a grown man and is unrivaled for adding organic matter to soils, tackling soil compaction, suppressing weeds and reducing erosion.
While it’s great grazing now, this winter, the remaining stubble will be used as bedding and a soil cover during the cold months ahead. Our cattle will calve on this sorghum bed, and this winter we’ll rotate where we lay out our hay to maximize the even spread of manure as fertilizer on these fields.
This is just one, of many ways, we incorporate things like cover crops and responsible livestock grazing onto fields that would otherwise just be on a monoculture system where the soil is left bare for much of the year.
Cattle, crops and responsible land management complement each other well. That means careful controlled burns, grazing overgrown brush and promoting new growth with a diversity of plants — and all of that is enhanced with the use of the incredible beef cow.
The climate change and cattle link isn’t going away anytime soon, folks. We must highlight our environmental stewardship practices on social media in order to counter these false claims. Let’s get to work. ❖