Greening the Herds Not a New or Revolutionary Idea

A recent New York Times Article, "Greening the Herds: A New Diet to Cap Gas," makes an argument for feeding cows more grass and supplementing their diets with Omega 3-rich Flax seed. The results are cows that burp less methane, therefore lowering their impact on climate change. This would seem innocent enough if it weren’t for the fact that this article seems so out of touch with the organic, sustainable food movement and so heavily reliant on quotes and information from businesses like Groupe Danone, the French dairy giant (which has a majority stake in Stonyfield Farms), and Dairy Management, Inc. the promotion and research (aka lobbying) arm of the American dairy industry.

So, in the most organized manner I can find that isn’t a huge messy rant and rave, here are my problems with the article:

1)

"Since January, cows at 15 farms across Vermont have had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed – substances that, unlike corn or soy, mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat."

Wow, congratulations! Cows are supposed to eat grass; I believe that is what the pasture-raised, sustainable food movement has been saying all along. They are healthier, happier animals when they get to eat what they have eaten for thousands of years. Why didn’t we just do this in the first place? Which leads me to point two:

2)

"Corn and soy, the feed that, thanks to postwar government aid, became dominant in the dairy industry, has a completely different type of fatty acid structure."

and

"A reason farmers like corn and soy is that those crops are a plentiful, cheap source of energy and protein – which may lead some to resist replacing them."

The government started subsidizing corn and soy after WWII, which in turn has lead to a glut of corn products in the market and a subsidization of junk food. Corn is in everything from ketchup to peanut butter, and of course there is so much and it is so cheap, they also feed it to animals. In fact 70% of corn grown in the U.S. goes to animal feed. But wait! Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn, they are supposed to eat grass, which is easier on their digestive systems and, therefore, leads them to produce less methane.

3)

"In the United States, where average milk production per cow has more than quadrupled since the 1950s, fewer cows are needed per gallon of milk, so the total emissions of heat-trapping gas for the American dairy industry are relatively low per gallon compared with those in less industrialized countries."

This may be the worst of all. Does the author care to state why they produce more milk? It’s called recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, a hormone that forces cows to produce 10 to 15 times more milk than normal. In return however, the cow lives a horrible life on a factory farm, can become ill with mastitis(a very painful condition of the udder), which can cause blood and pus to leak into the milk, and causes many calves to be born deformed. Cows have also been engineered, genetically tinkered with and cloned to produce more milk. Seems like a large issue to leave out of the article.

Read more on rGBH here.

4)

"More broadly, with worldwide production of milk and beef expected to double in the next 30 years, the United Nations has called livestock one of the most serious near-term threats to the global climate. In a 2006 report that looked at the environmental impact of cows worldwide, including forest-clearing activity to create pasture land, it estimated that cows might be more dangerous to Earth’s atmosphere than trucks and cars combined."

It seems that with beef and milk production doubling and the U.N. saying livestock is an enormous problem, we may need to look at a multiple solutions to solving the problem that cattle present to climate change. Switching cows to grass is an obvious solution both for the welfare of the animal and for the environment, but here is one that will do even more, eat less meat and consume less dairy!

According to the Dutch documentary, "Meat the Truth," 18% of global emissions come from animal production, which includes raising, transporting and packaging. If every American gave up meat for just one day a week, we would collectively save 12 million gallons of gas. Fortunately, our friends at Meatless Monday already have a campaign to help us cut down.

5)

"Dairy Management Inc., the promotion and research arm of the American dairy industry, says it accounts for just 2 percent of the country’s emissions of heat-trapping gases, most of it from cows' methane."

Dairy Management Inc. represents the American Dairy Association, the National Dairy Council and the U.S. Dairy Export Council, so of course they are lobbying in the interests of big dairy. It’s the dairy PR team, it is their job to make their members look as friendly and harmless as possible. Therefore, a study done by Dairy Management Inc. is not, by definition independent or reliable. Funding is a very important part of the puzzle when it comes to looking at a study’s results. This puts me in mind of James McWilliams "Free Range Trichinosis" New York Times Op-ed in April, where he failed to disclose that the study he based his argument around was funded by the National Pork Board.

So there we have it, those are the main reasons why this article had me confused and frustrated. I generally feel that the New York Times is quite progressive with its coverage of sustainable food, but this time they got it wrong. Mainly it seemed as if the author was not well versed in the topic, but that’s no excuse. I could go on, but this is enough to digest for now – we don’t want to produce more methane.

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