Climate activists are increasingly focusing their attention on the agriculture industry, which has led to government interventions and calls for reduced cattle herds in several countries. Ireland's government, aiming to meet climate targets, may need to reduce its cattle population by 200,000 cows over the next three years. Additionally, the European Union recently approved a Dutch plan worth $1.6 billion to buy out livestock farmers in an effort to combat nitrogen pollution.
Now, the Biden administration is also turning its attention to American agriculture. John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, emphasized the significant contribution of the food production sector to greenhouse gas emissions during a climate summit for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kerry stressed that agriculture must play a central role in finding solutions to achieve net-zero emissions.
Billionaire Bill Gates has also been focusing on cattle emissions and has provided financial support to companies developing seaweed supplements and gas masks for cows.
However, Katy Atkinson, an agricultural advocate and cattle raiser, argues that the conversation surrounding emissions from the industry fails to consider the positive impacts that cattle have on the environment and climate. Atkinson points out that cattle contribute to drought resistance, soil health, and wildfire reduction. She highlights that prior to the introduction of cattle to North America, there were large buffalo herds that emitted methane in similar quantities. Methane emissions from ruminant animals are not a new phenomenon.
Atkinson explains that cattle grazing management has numerous environmental benefits. Cattle help to promote plant growth by breaking down grasses and fertilizing the ground. Methane emissions from cattle eventually break down into carbon dioxide and water in the atmosphere, and the carbon dioxide is utilized by the plants, which in turn store carbon in the soil through their roots. Cattle also aid in preventing carbon release from the soil by compacting it as they walk upon it.
Regulations targeting emissions from agriculture, as proposed by Kerry, would increase the costs of farming and ranching, leading to more expensive food for consumers. This could exacerbate food insecurity, as a significant portion of the population still lacks access to sufficient nutrition. If farming and ranching operations are shut down in North America and Europe, food production would likely shift to countries with less stringent environmental regulations, resulting in less sustainable farming practices on a global scale.
Atkinson also highlights that cattle provide valuable protein sources and consume various food byproducts that would otherwise go to waste. Additionally, animal byproducts are used in the production of a wide range of everyday items, including detergents, nail polish remover, soaps, lotions, footballs, and pharmaceuticals.
It is crucial to consider the holistic impact of targeting the livestock industry and recognize the multifaceted benefits that cattle provide, rather than solely focusing on their emissions.