Cow Farts, Climate Change, and Questions of Equity

By Meghan L. Morris*


In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the production and consumption of animal products creates not only a dramatic local environmental footprint, but also significant global environmental effects.  A UN study published in2010 found that the agriculture sector is responsible for the majority of land and water use globally, and 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Research by the FAO shows that beef and cattle milk production alone account for over sixty percent of these agriculture-related emissions.

In the most recent in a string of climate change studies, published last month, researchers found that the environmental impacts of beef production dwarf that of other livestock, requiring 28 times more land and 11 times more water, and producing five times more greenhouse gas emissions than pork or chicken production per consumed calorie.  Cows, it turns out, are particularly terrible for the climate.  This is true whether they are used for the production of either meat or milk, as the biggest issue is the amount of methane they produce.  The problem, in essence, is cow farts.  Just one cow, farting over the course of a single day, produces between 66 and 132 gallons of methane.  That is, as reported in the International Business Times, a lot of gas.

In the wake of these studies, there have been a number of calls for solutions, from shifts to a vegan diet to reductions in subsidies for the cattle industry.  In reporting on the July study, a researcher from the University of Leeds suggested that “[t]he biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”  This statement echoes one of the broader conclusions of the earlier UN report, which found that “[a] substantial reduction of [environmental] impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”  On the production side, commentators have suggested measures such as reducing the production of beef cattle through reducing subsidies to the cattle industry and the corn industry that feeds it and subsidizing increased intensity of cattle ranching to decrease the deforestation associated with the creation of cattle pastures.

But who exactly is being asked to make these shifts, and where?  What precisely would be their social and environmental outcomes, beyond a potential downtick in global greenhouse gas emissions?  Like the climate change debate more broadly, the question of who makes what shifts to deal with the problem has implications for global and local equity.  And in order to understand these implications, we need to think about not only the specifics of production and consumption – which is the focus of most of these recent studies – but also the complex political ecologies in which raising and eating animals happens.

In reading the recent FAO report on this issue, for example, I was surprised to see only areas in the Global South identified as targets for emissions reductions.  According to the report, the “major mitigation potential lies in ruminant systems operating at low productivity (e.g. in South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa).”  In terms of global equity, this approach runs the risk of replicating the North-South divide that has plagued climate change negotiations for decades, pitting the US – the world’s largest emitter (and, not coincidentally, also the world’s largest beef producer) – against nations with growing emissions rates but less historical responsibility and generally fewer resources for mitigation.

This approach also homogenizes the Global South, ignoring important internal differences in the political ecology of cattle production.  In Colombia alone, these differences are marked.  In the northwest of the country, once a highly biodiverse area, virgin forests were cleared and cut in recent decades and turned into pastureland for cattle.  Much of this pastureland was later consolidated into a few hands, in some cases through the use of threats and violence, decreasing the availability of land for small-scale and other crop farming.  In the eastern plains of Colombia, the landscape might look similar – large expanses of grassland with grazing beef cattle – but its political ecology is actually quite different.  Local communities have practiced cattle ranching for centuries on large areas of natural plains, developing cattle breeds that are less productive but adapted to seasonal flooding and local environmental characteristics.  Recent efforts to invest in this area, which has been called Colombia’s “last agricultural frontier,” have pitted local ranchers against wealthy domestic and international investors eager to plant the area in soy, corn, and oil palm.  One of the central arguments made by these investors is that these crops are better for the environment than cattle ranching – even as early plantations have demonstrated environmental problems such as significant demand on water supplies.

These differences in the reality of beef production demonstrate the dramatically different implications that a country-wide policy effort to reduce livestock-related emissions might have.  In one area, it might increase employment, land availability, biodiversity, and forest cover, while in another just a few hundred kilometers away, it might create loss of employment, water shortages, decreased biodiversity, and displacement.  The diversity of political ecologies of production only increases at a regional level or across the Global South, where attempts to tweak things like feed sources, herd management, and government supports have dramatically different implications in terms of global and local equity, as well as environmental outcomes.  This requires approaches that pay close attention to the specifics of these diverse political ecologies.

The importance of attention to global and local equity also applies to the consumption side of the puzzle.  This fact was made brutally clear in PETA’s latest attempt at converting the masses to veganism, in which the organization offered to pay the overdue water bills of selected destitute Detroit residents in exchange for their adoption of a vegan diet for a month.  PETA justified this campaign on health, environmental, and animal rights grounds.  The organization was widely criticized for this move, both by people who claimed it was treating a human right as a prize, and those who pointed out that the globe-trotting president of PETA likely generates more emissions than a poverty-stricken non-vegan resident of Detroit.

In pointing to the importance of paying attention to equity, I am not arguing that millions of cows in developing countries should keep farting with abandon while livestock and feed grain subsidies are withdrawn in the United States.  I am also not making a cultural or economic argument for meat consumption.  I think it is tremendously important to make policy shifts across the globe to reduce emissions and deal with the existing and future effects of climate change.  In order to be effective, these policy shifts must have consequences for what we produce and consume, and that should likely mean less meat overall.  But in developing these policies, it is crucial to pay attention to global and local equity, and the particular political ecologies and dynamics of this production and consumption.  Because if we don’t, we risk not only continued failed climate policies, but also exacerbating existing inequality – itself one of the biggest obstacles to climate change resilience.


* Meghan L. Morris is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an Affiliated Researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society)

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