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April 13, 2010
Motivated Reasoning

To be taken seriously one must go far beyond confirming your biases, one must reason in good faith.

In late 2005, when I proposed a company-wide initiative to reduce the amount of beef and cheese we serve in our 400 cafés by 25 percent as part of our Low Carbon Diet Program, I was equipped with a half-dozen independent studies, mostly from Europe. Beef and other products from ruminant animals, including cheese, clearly had a higher GWP ("global warming potential") than other foods because the animals emit significant amounts of potent methane through their digestive processes—regardless of what they eat (grain or grass) or where they eat it (pasture or feedlot; both have been studied). The greenhouse gases emitted per pound of beef produced were much, much higher than for other foods. . .

I debated a rancher on Fox News in January 2009 who claimed that his cows didn't contribute to global warming "because they eat grass." This is similar to a claim put forth in a grass-fed cattle rancher's newsletter that his beef "is carbon neutral" because cows "are part of the carbon cycle. ... They are born, they eat, they die, they return to the soil." Well, so are humans, and our choices matter too. There are lots of reasons to support small-scale, pasture-raised beef versus CAFO-produced, but carbon neutrality sure isn't one of them.

The FAO report held livestock emissions responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector. . .

I applaud the ranchers who are genuinely working to improve waste management (the biggest variable in emissions) or trying different animal forages that might lead to fewer emissions (nothing is yet conclusive). But an increasing number of independent studies continue to show that beef imposes a higher climate-change burden than plant-based foods we can eat directly, regardless of production methods (pasture- or feedlot-based) or many ranchers' honest efforts at land stewardship. One study equated the emissions associated with each American's three and a half pounds of weekly meat consumption with the emissions of driving an efficient car 200 miles.

All of the arguments that Helene York cites are carefully selected to confirm her emotional bias. She carefully avoids consideration of natural systems, the carbon cycle, historical data or even common sense.

The way to think about food production and GHGs is to look at the whole system, over time, in a context of human nutritional requirements. When you do this all of her carefully selected biases crumble: she ends up being an advocate for decreased human nutrition as well as environmental harm.

I won't repeat all of the detailed facts of the matter about the harm to the environment that comes from ripping the earth to grow field and row crops - including the massive emission of GHGs and the monotonic degradation of the soil - or the way that managed ruminant systems heal the earth while providing nutritional benefits that are otherwise simply not available on a whole system basis (though a few can buy their way out of the dilemma at the expense of the vast majority).

Instead, ask yourself what the earth was like before human population exploded? It was heavily infested with ruminants of all kinds, everything from bison to wildebeest, and antelope to goats. The reason that they were so very competitive with other animals is that they are very, very efficient on a whole system basis. They thrive where other animals can't live except in small numbers because their digestive systems are superior, and because they improve their range, making it ever more productive. When you map the best soils on the planet, the mollisols, they are all the former homes of vast herds of ruminants who in effect created those soils over deep time. That's where humans now grow their field and row crops, ruining what took eons to create.

Rather than increasing the amount of land used for crops, and feeding those crops to either humans or ruminants, we should increase the amount of land managed for the health of the land by emulating the natural habits of the ruminants that created the good land in the first place. That includes most crucially increasing the soil's organic matter, its carbon in other words, since the amounts already lost due to cropping have degraded the soil and the atmosphere, and good management can sequester it in the soil once again where the benefits are multiple.

Posted by back40 at 09:53 AM | Ag Systems

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I'm all for covering the great plains in bison and cattle, but more often than not, high intensity ag is more efficient if you want to grow enough for everyone

Posted by: Matt at April 13, 2010 04:45 PM

You can, and should, do both.

This post was chiefly responding to the GHG argument York was making, but there's also a total production argument for recycling ag residues that no animal but ruminants can digest, as a way to get the most bang for your photosynthetic buck. And, by rotating crop land back to pasture, fertility and moisture can be increased, making subsequent crops better.

Strip pasture is another method used with success: some percentage of the field is sowed to pasture each year, rotating the whole field back to pasture a bit at a time, but not all at the same time.

Plus, they spread the manure for you.

Posted by: back40 at April 13, 2010 05:31 PM
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