In his recent commentary “Stop the Blame Game” in the Reno Gazette-Journal, Dennis Golden reveals the dangers of pop culture solutions that lack scientific scrutiny. In his piece, Mr. Golden has many misleading or inaccurate assumptions about livestock production and climate change.

https://www.rgj.com/story/opinion/voices/2019/02/07/stop-blame-game-lets-find-climate-change-solutions-golden/2807017002/

First, he rhetorically asks if it really matters whether global heating is human-caused or due to natural factors. Yes, it does matter. Because if it’s human caused, then humans can do something to neutralize or stop it.

We have known since the 1800s that CO2 is good at trapping heat. And we also know that current CO2 levels are a direct consequence of human activities from burning fossil fuels to livestock production.

All of these sources of CO2 can be reduced or eliminated, and that would have significant effects on climate heating.

He goes on to assert that we need more livestock grazing, parroting Allan Savory, a discredited charlatan that has for decades declared the problem for the world, particularly arid ecosystems, is too little livestock, not too much.

While the basic idea that soils can absorb and store carbon is accurate, livestock grazing is not the way to achieve this for a host of reasons that Mr. Golden overlooks.

First, like in any business, one must do a full accounting of profit and losses.  Even if grazing could, under some circumstances, increase soil carbon, this must be balanced against the GHG emissions that result from livestock production.

Depending on what is included in the accounting, domestic livestock are responsible for between 14% to 50% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Even at the lower 14% figure, this is more than all global transportation from airplanes to cars.

These GHG emissions are due to livestock rumen bacteria emissions of methane. Methane is an even more potent at trapping heat than C02. More livestock would only emit more methane, far more than any carbon that might be stored in soils.

Secondly, arid grasslands due to their original low productivity, store very little carbon compared to other ecosystems like forests. Livestock grazing, even if it did help to store carbon in places like the Great Basin (an unlikely assumption for other reasons) has a negligible effect on CO2. Not to mention there is little ability to significantly increase livestock grazing in arid ecosystems since the majority are in poor ecological condition.

Many studies of arid landscapes like the Great Basin show removal of livestock grazing is the quickest way to increase soil carbon.

The few places where studies have demonstrated increases in soil carbon under livestock grazing are primarily in moister ecosystems that are typically forested. The majority of livestock expansion in these moister regions is due to cutting down of forests and replacement with pastures—thus reducing the overall ability of that ecosystem to store carbon.

Cattle are by far and away the most significant source of GHG emissions of any livestock group. The simplest and best way that any individual can reduce their GHG emissions is to stop producing and eating beef.

 

 
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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

37 Responses to Livestock responsible for climate warming Response to Golden

  1. avatar Randy Peterson says:

    I think you need to take a few soil building workshops before you start spouting BS. You might learn something useful.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      And where do you live Randy?

      • avatar STEPHEN ZWICK says:

        Soils in grassland ecosystems store as much or more carbon than most types of forests via what’s known as the soil microbial carbon pump pathway meaning the CO2 converted to glucose via photosynthesis is pumped out of the roots into soils where it is stored. This is a separate pathway from the decomposition pathway. For a more detail explanation of how this works, see Liang, c et al 2017 the importance of anabolism in microbial control over soil carbon storage

        Or, in other words, Randy is correct, George doesn’t know squat about soil science.

  2. avatar JohnR says:

    Thanks George. I minimized my beef ear long ago because of the environmental impact of the almost 100 million cattle in the US. Eating a lot of red meat is not very healthy thing to do. Cattle are ubiquitous across the US. They often erode streambanks and compete with native wildlife like deer, elk, pronghorn, and bison, especially around Yellowstone. The public lands and National Forests around Yellowstone should have a priority on native species. Leave the cattle in less sensitive areas. It is disturbing when bears and wolves are relocated or shot because they get into conflicts with cattle near Yellowstone on public lands, especially near the Upper Green River area.

  3. avatar Greg McMillan says:

    One thing that is never mentioned in all this discourse is that is not the ranching end of the cattle business that causes the methane production. It is the entire CAFO system that feeds grains to cattle (grass feeders) that is the problem. I am a Grass Fed Beef (small scale) grower in California. Never heard a cow fart in my life…Horses yes….

  4. avatar Les says:

    Grass fed beef is even worse. “Studies have shown that grass-fed cattle produce 20% more methane in their lifetime than grain-fed cattle. This is due to two different factors:

    1) cattle naturally emit more methane when digesting grass. 2) grass-fed cattle reach market weight more slowly than feedlot cattle, so they’re emitting methane over a longer time (Marshall, 2010).” (Marshall, J. (2010, January 27). Grass-Fed Beef Has Bigger Carbon Footprint. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from Discovery News: http://news.discovery.com/earth/grass-fed-beef-grain.html )

    • avatar STEPHEN ZWICK says:

      You’re actually citing old research based on an industrial rationalization for feedlots. Newer research shows that with proper management, without even doing contextual accounting for methane, all the enteric methane is more than offset by soil carbon sequestration so much so that the beef produced is CARBON NEGATIVE. Here’s some of the more recent science with AMP grazing for the finishing phase of cattle comparing this management method to feedlot finishing: Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems (Stanley et al 2018) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338

      • avatar rork says:

        Interesting, thanks.
        They mention it takes twice the land, which made me wonder how much CO2 sink one could get out of that other half. It depends on where you are no doubt. I doubt they will be growing oak trees on that other half in Kansas, or ND. I might also be a bit worried that soil carbon increases under grazing do not stay as large 10 years out – that they’d be higher at the start of switching to “fancy” grazing tactics. Like my garden soil which got better in a hurry the first 5-10 years but now seems steady state despite yearly mountains of compost.

        Unlike George I’d emphasize that legislation like carbon taxes are what will help most, not what you as an isolated person consumes. That said I’ve only bought animal parts once this year – suet for birds. It’s not cause I feel sorry for farm animals, and it’s partly that I’m privileged to have game, and the occasional hobby-farmer chicken. It’s not about CO2 either. It’s about land use.

  5. avatar idaursine says:

    It’s not the fault of cattle – the underlying problem is that at least 100 million cattle are required to feed the population. Raising cattle in and of itself, would barely be a blip for the climate and the environment might have a chance to recover if the amount of cattle were not so huge, and on every environment from grassland, woodland to desert. The sheer amount of cattle needed for beef puts a tremendous strain on the environment and wildlife, and I really don’t see it improving without a tremendous outcry from everyone.

    We need to eat a lot less beef and meat in general, but I don’t know if people will, and the more prosperous people become, the more meat they eat.

    That’s why I say, at least on our lifetimes, grazing laws and rights will always take precedence, because of the food supply.

  6. avatar idaursine says:

    I don’t eat beef, or any red meat anymore, haven’t in decades, and I’ve never regretted my decision either. I was lucky now, I feel, to have grown up not-so-rich, where we didn’t have beef a lot.

    In addition to the environmental strain, the mechanized slaughter production required now to feed the human population is monstrously cruel and unfeeling, and that as much as anything has contributed to my giving it up. I understand production is going to be increased too.

    Treating living things like assembly line product I cannot take part in.

    • avatar Greg McMillan says:

      the rule of biology is that for one organism to survive, another must die. It is like gravity. Deny it at your peril

      • avatar idaursine says:

        I’d prefer it to be a chickpea. 🙂

      • avatar Rich says:

        Greg,

        You say “the rule of biology is that for one organism to survive, another must die. It is like gravity. Deny it at your peril”. Perhaps you can tell us what organisms die when an arugula seed falls on the ground, sprouts and survives? Last time I checked the sun’s rays didn’t constitute an organism.

        • avatar Greg McMillan says:

          If you eat it, the arugula of course…..thanks….g

          • avatar Rich says:

            Greg,

            Nice try – but you do not understand that plants typically only need sunlight, water and mineral soil to survive. Therefore “Greg McMillan’s First Law of Biology” fails miserably.

            • avatar Greg McMillan says:

              Yes, but irrelevant. When the steer eats the grass, the grass dies. I am fond of saying that grass is my most important product. The beef is a byproduct

              • avatar Rich says:

                Irrelevant? You claim that “the rule of biology is that for one organism to survive, another must die. It is like gravity. Deny it at your peril”

                You will want to take a biology course to learn about plants and animals. They are in a completely different classification Kingdom for a reason.

                When a deer, elk or rabbit eats the grass here the grass doesn’t die. Your contention that one organism must die for another organism to live is obviously ludicrous!

                • avatar Greg McMillan says:

                  Perhaps the plant does not die, depending on the type of plant, but that part that goes down the Bison’s gullet certainly does. just thinking…..

      • avatar idaursine says:

        The only problem I have with that statement is that for us, it’s not just one that dies, it’s many, in order for us to ‘survive’. We do much more than survive, other organisms are sacrificed for things that we do not need to survive. We deny it at our own peril because eventually we’ll harm ourselves as well when our environmental support system collapses.

        • avatar Greg McMillan says:

          Wells aid…Thank you…

          • avatar idaursine says:

            Thanks! 🙂

          • avatar Rich says:

            Greg,

            Not only does the grass plant not die, it doesn’t kill another organism to survive. A rational individual would have to admit that your contention that one organism must die for another organism to live is not only incorrect but as Mark Twain would say, greatly exaggerated! In fact, plants are nothing less than miraculous and without them life on earth would be very much different. If all or even half the plants were to disappear from the planet tomorrow, humans would likely perish. If half or all of the cattle disappeared from our public lands our wildlife would flourish, taxpayers would save money, farmers grazing cattle on private land would benefit, we would be rid of low life like Cliven Bundy and humans would survive just fine. Fortunately life on earth is not a zero sum game and it is all possible thanks to plant life.

            • avatar Greg McMillan says:

              Great discusson. Thanks for it. One more round.

              Protein. If all the grazing land were covered with soybeans there would be no carbon capture and that is what started this discussion.

              Now, your position that plants do not survive on organic matter is rather thin. If not then why would I put all my scraps, including animal products into a big pile, let the worms eat it and then just sit back to watch the garden grow? My best guess is that plants need some organic micronutrients to thrive…..

              • avatar Rich says:

                I’m not saying some plants don’t find ways to take advantage of organic matter if it is there. Its just that they don’t have to kill something to survive. In fact there are air plants that can grow suspended in air surviving on sunlight and the moisture in the air. Perhaps they might strangle an occasional fruit fly but that is not necessary. As I’m sure you know there is whole industry of hydroponics that recommends using distilled water. Growers may add certain minerals for best results but I think for most of these operations purposefully adding a dead animal to the water would be anathema.

                • avatar Greg McMillan says:

                  I do not think I said that you have to kill something to survive. I only said that something has to die and I will stand by that. Thank you for the conversation….

  7. avatar idaursine says:

    People and cattle have been around almost since the beginning of humanity.

    I’ve been reading articles about changing the digestion biology of cattle with breeding techniques, or feeding them different food – anything to avoid giving it up! All of it sounds very farfetched, and it still won’t offset the needs of a world population of an estimated 11 billion by 2050.

  8. avatar Yvette says:

    Just a day ago I did a search on methane produced by cattle because the right-wingers were going bonkers since this is one of the issues in the ‘New Green Deal’. They made a big joke of it.

    I’ve been aware of the issue for a long time but never paid it much mind. I never attempted to learning about it more in-depth.

    Like pretty much anything, it is more complicated once one dives in. This is less about cow farts (the big joke from FOX ‘news’ and their ilk) and much more about how to measure the methane emissions from cattle.

    I thought this article from Penn State was interesting. Of those commenting here, who knew there was a ‘top-down’ methodology or a ‘bottom-up’ methodology of measuring cattle methane emissions? I certainly didn’t. I am glad there is serious research being conducted. I have more faith and trust in them than I do any of the news sources.

    “If methane emissions from livestock in this country really are twice as high as what is estimated now—and we don’t believe they are—that would put a big target on agriculture to take measures to cut these emissions,” said Hristov. “Having an accurate and spatially explicit assessment of methane emissions from livestock is critical for reconciliation of top-down and bottom-up approaches, and it’s the starting point in any mitigation effort.”
    “Our analysis showed that the EPA’s estimates are close to reality, but there is a discrepancy in the spatial distribution of emissions. And, our research revealed a great discrepancy with global models such as the EDGAR (Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research) inventory.”

    Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-methane-emissions-livestock.html#jCp

    Cattle emissions aside, all of us know the combined problems with cattle ranching is enormous and varied, especially in the West where we still use open range grazing. Habitat destruction; wildlife ‘dispatched’; severe impacts to water quality; adverse impacts to hydrology of streams and; financial loss to all Americans due to failure to pay grazing fees. (case in point, Cliven Bundy who as far as I know still owes us over a million dollars and his skinny cattle are still destroying critical habitat).

    It’s too darn bad that American news entertainment sources make light of a problem that not only exists, but one that should be mitigated in the overall approach to GHG emission reduction.

  9. avatar Stephen Zwick says:

    Um, no George.

    Methanogensis occurs wherever arhaea exist, and that’s in a multitude of ecosystems especially anoxoic ones like peat bogs, rice paddies and wetlands. Insects, shellfish, and pretty much any place there’s decomposition also have archaea emitting methane. So there are a multitude of sources for methane gas that are both biogenic and anthropogenic that are microbial. There are also numerous sources of methane that are thermogenic and pyrogenic.

    Now what keeps all this methane from accumulating? Sinks both in the soils (methanotrophic) and in the atmosphere (hydroxyl radicals), that’s what. These sinks oxidize methane back to water and then CO2 that is part of the carbon cycle. Most CH4 cycles relatively quickly. It is considered a short lived climate pollutant. Most CO2 is part of the carbon cycle meaning it doesn’t aggregate and compound. Now what causes imbalance between CH4 sources of emissions and sinks as well as what’s causing excess CO2 by far is fossil fuel emissions not animal Ag.

    Fossil fuels are trapped forms of both CH4 and CO2 released into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are the two main sources of anthropogenic CH4 and CO2. Rises in atmospheric CH4 directly correlate with increased fossil fuel uses, and most recently with fracking gas, which has both microbial and thermogenic (C12 & C13) signatures. Because fracking gas and coal bed gas have microbial signatures, these sources have been mistaken for CH4 from the livestock sector in some top down analysis.

    Dr. Myles Allen and his team at COP24 have proposed a new way to account for short term climate pollutants including CH4 and aerosols because they are being over accounted for in the climate science math. In general, cattle are not adding to atmospheric loads of CH4 or CO2. Why? Because carbon flows, and shift forms…..

    Heres’ a more detailed nerdy explanation: Due to hydroxyl radical oxidation, enteric methane really is part of the carbon cycle so it’s a constant amount. CO2 from the atmosphere is converted to sugars plant use to make cellulose, lignan and exudates. Cattle eat the cellulose. A quorum of bacteria/archae including methanogens in the rumen convert that cellulose to H2, short chained fatty acids and CH4. The SFCA’s are used for energy, and the CH4 is burped. That CH4 collides with OH (hydroxyl radicals) which steals a hydrogen atom and thus breaks down to H2O and eventually back to Co2 which again then goes to photosynthesis to make the grasses and twigs cattle and other ruminants eat. It’s a cycle …loop. …not an aggregating process. If cattle or ruminants don’t eat the grasses, those grasses still oxidize or decompose back to CO2 directly or to CH4 which then is oxidized in the geosphere by methanotrophs or the troposphere by hydroxyl radicals back to CO2 which then also cycles.When ruminants eat the grasses, the carbon just flows into these animals. Some of that carbon is stored as proteins, fats, and carbs, and some is released.

    Now anywhere you have photosynthesis, you have carbon sequestration. CO2 in the atmosphere is converted to sugars, glucose through the Krebs cycle. These sugars are transformed into lignans, cellulose, proteins, fats, etc. Plants also exude these sugars into the soil in exchange for nutrients. Plants with large root and mycorrhizal networks pump a lot of carbon into the ground, so soils store as much or more carbon than most types of forests. This is true of grassland ecosystems as well that hold as much or more carbon than a number of different types of forest. Grasslands (and wetlands) have largely been destroyed in North America. Where grasslands have been converted to crop land, and then further degraded, most of the soil organic matter and soil carbon has been lost. So much so that according to Nobel Prize winning soil scientist, one third of the earth’s atmospheric carbon load is due to the plow, not cows or automobiles.

    These grassland ecosystems have also co-evolved with grazing ruminants. Ruminant saliva, pee and poo are inoculates that speed up plant growth, when ruminants don’t overgraze. Ruminants don’t overgraze when they have predatory pressure or are well manged. Most people’s collective memories forget this relationship between grasslands, ruminants and predators since we’ve extirpated most of the pronghorn, bison, big horn sheep, and elk in North America recently as well as the auroch, bison, stepped bison in Europe and Asia further back in time. Back in the 1860’s, the Great Plains was like the Serengeti with ruminants and predators. This was where the life was. Everything wasn’t once one big vast forest.

    Further back in time, North America and all the other continents, besides Australia, had different ruminants, near ruminants and other large herbivores including toxidons, giant sloths and forms of elephant like animals. Camelids originated in North America. Australia had it’s own unique megafauna with giant marsupials.

    Thus George you also don’t understand how soil and climate science work very well. You also are mistaken about the range science as well, since this science has also shown large increases in soil carbon sequestration in places like Chiapas, Mexico (Marinidou et al, 2017) as well as with Teague in Texas. There’s also been research in other places that aren’t exactly humid environments where the soil carbon sequestration alone has far exceeded the enteric methane. This isn’t due to trees. So you’re either unaware or purposely ignorant of this research for your ideological reasons.

    • avatar Scott MacButch says:

      “Now what keeps all this methane from accumulating? Sinks both in the soils (methanotrophic) and in the atmosphere (hydroxyl radicals), that’s what.”

      The E.P.A. in their “Inventory of U.S. Green House Gas Emissions and Sinks (1990-2016)” would beg to differ with you about methane not accumulating in the atmosphere:
      Methane (CH4) is 25 times as effective as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere (IPCC 2007). Over the last two hundred and fifty years, the concentration of CH4 in the atmosphere increased by 163 percent (IPCC 2013; NOAA/ESRL 2017b). Anthropogenic sources of CH4 include natural gas and petroleum systems, agricultural activities, LULUCF, landfills, coal mining, wastewater treatment, stationary and mobile combustion, and certain industrial processes”.

      They list Enteric Fermentation (the digestive process in ruminant animals) as the largest contributor of methane followed by Natural Gas Systems and Landfills.

      The Acknowledgements List related to the above referenced document is impressive, citing researchers, scientists and academics from across the country as well as E.P.A. scientists.

      The document is easily found on the internet.

  10. avatar idaursine says:

    It’s all in what we value, I think. Along with cattle, horses have been beside man for millennia as well. We wouldn’t have achieved in civilization what we have without then, to say nothing of how many of them were destroyed in stupid human wars. What we no longer need, we discard I guess.

    Tens of thousands of wild horses don’t do nearly the damage of 100 million cattle, but it is all in what we want to keep on the landscape, I guess. They also eat up that devil cheatgrass. Very sad commentary about us.

  11. avatar Bruce Bowen says:

    I suppose people have their favorite versions of the mix of capitalism and land use we have experienced in the last couple hundred years. For those of us that have worked on public lands it has always been difficult to convey the extent of the impacts of grazing to those people that have not been on the land much.

    I was once lobbied by the an Audubon group to put as many cows as possible on public land because they felt that this would provide food for California condors. They had a bad case of tunnel vision. So no matter that the impacts of grazing negatively affected other endangered species–condors were all that mattered. I gently had to remind them that grazing lessees were not in the business of feeding condors and that if the land was grazed down to a ‘table top’ that giant kangaroo rat, kit fox and other bird species populations would go into the cellar.

    In a country where buy and sell and various bias attitudes pretty much set the tone for decisions for resource use, it is very difficult for real ecological thought to have any impact. Witness the last 30 plus years of ecological suppression.

    Ecology is not just a book learning thing. I think it requires being on the land a lot and experiencing the energy of the land, plant and animal complex.

    I don’t think people will want to understand ecology until all they have to eat is jelly fish and algae and the air is so bad that they can hardly breath.

    As Thoreau said- “It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you really see”.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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