Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blame the Corn, Not the Cows

A recent report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," published by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (pdf) underscores the role livestock is playing in greenhouse-gas emission and climate change:
Direct emissions from livestock come from the respiratory process of all animals in the form of carbon dioxide. Ruminants, and to a minor extent also monogastrics, emit methane as part of their digestive process, which involves microbial fermentation of fibrous feeds. Animal manure also emits gases such as methane, nitrous oxides, ammonia and carbon dioxide, depending on the way they are produced [solid, liquid] and managed [collection, storage, spreading].
Cows, in other words, fart and poo. But when that fart and poo starts melting glaciers, New West's Peter Holter says we should be reexamining not the cows themselves so much as what we feed them:
As best we can tell, the UN study is primarily based on animals that have been raised in an industrialized manner, confined to pens and barns where they are fed a steady slaughterhouse/feedlot diet of synthetic minerals, grains, fodder, and antibiotics. These would make anyone belch and produce unpleasant gas!

. . . .

Historically, before “modern” agricultural methods took hold, animals were not confined. On roughly two-thirds of this continent, there were once hundreds of millions of herding, hoofed, grazing/browsing animals and sufficient pack-hunting predators – human and otherwise - to keep them constantly bunched and on the move.

If we think back to the time when the American Bison roamed the Great Plains, the tall grasses were healthy and abundant and able to support both the grazers and the predators. The Bison played a major role in maintaining the health of the grasslands, due to their grazing patterns, hoof action and natural (not synthetic) fertilizing actions.

Why is that important?

According to a recent study from the University of Montana, healthy grasslands actually pull significant amounts of carbon from the air and sink it into their roots by weight and volume. (Some evidence suggests they sink more carbon than trees.) This is carbon that does not enter the atmosphere to cause the problems referenced in the U.N. report.
Link (via the Ethicurean).

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