I recently took a train from California to Chicago, and eagerly looked for wildlife along the voyage. But there was only one type of animal that I saw in large numbers: cows. From the rolling hills of California to the deserts of Utah to the snowy plains of Colorado, cows are everywhere.
While not quite as exciting as the exotic wildlife I was hoping to see, these cows are as free-range as they come, looking as though they've wandered straight out of a beef commercial. So why wasn't I happy to see these animals?
Grass-fed, free-range beef is sometimes presented as the solution to all of our problems – a sustainable, humane product without any of the ethical and environmental quandaries of factory farmed meat. But there are a few key problems with this narrative:
The land that cows inhabit, nearly 33% of the country (1), is not devoid of other life. Cows are competing with native animals for land and food.
Thanks to ranchers, this is not a fair fight. Ranchers use Wildlife Services, a secretive arm of the USDA, to round up or kill grazers like wild horses that compete for grassland, predators like wolves and bears that pose a threat to cows, and even small mammals like prairie dogs that dig holes that cows' hooves could fall into.
In 2013, Wildlife Services killed over 2 million native animals, largely at the behest of ranchers (2).
A report from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that over 30% of rangeland fails to "meet range health standards for water, vegetation, soils and the ability to support wildlife principally due to commercial livestock operations." (3)
“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, noting that the percentage of impairment in lands assessed remains fairly consistent over the past decade. “The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list.” (4)
Rather than trying to improve the health of our nation's rangeland, the Bureau of Land Management has recently begun removing information from its reports about rangeland health related to livestock overgrazing. (5)
A single beef cow produces over 60 pounds of manure per day (6). While many articles have been published recently about how beneficial manure can be for restoring pasture, that assumes a limited number of cows migrating over a large swath of pasture. In 2014 there were 95 million cows raised in the U.S., producing far more manure than any ecosystem could healthfully absorb. (7)
A recent article by Grist graphically sums up this issue: "Vermont's dirty secret: Free-ranging cows are crapping in the water supply." Vermont's Lake Champlain is infested with toxic cyanobacteria algae due to manure runoff from the state's free range cows.
A single cow produces approximately 100kg of methane per year. (8) With 95 million cows raised annually in the U.S., that's 9 billion, 500 million kg of methane released annually from beef cattle alone. This is concerning because according to the E.P.A., "Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period." (9)
Several authors arguing in favor of free-range beef have noted that the methane emissions can be offset by carbon sequestered by plants that are fostered by the cow's manure. However, this story conveniently leaves out one key part of the equation: those benefits are true only in certain landscapes, with a limited number of cows.
Even if cows are beneficial for cultivating prairie grasses (which is still being debated), they devastate vegetation in other ecosystems. They eat shoots indiscriminately, so they'll eat not only grass but also budding shrubs and trees. That vegetation, if allowed to flourish, would sequester carbon dioxide, and provide food and habitat for native animals.
If we really want to restore our ecosystems and preserve our environment, there are basic well-documented steps we can take:
Restore predator levels - The predators that are currently being killed by Wildlife Services to protect cattle are crucial for every level of ecosystems. This fantastic infographic shows how wolf population affects everything from songbird and otter populations, to the very course of rivers.
Reintroduce buffalo – it's true that large, grazing animals are important for many ecosystems in the U.S. because native species co-evolved with large herds of migrating buffalo. If restoring rangeland is truly the primary concern (and not making money from beef or ensuring a steady hamburger supply), why not make a concerted effort to reintroduce buffalo populations?
Eat less meat - Any discussion about sustainable meat should be paired with a discussion of reducing meat consumption, because (for all of the reasons discussed above) it's simply not possible to meet current demand for meat sustainably.
With products that increasingly have the same taste, texture, and protein as beef, without the environmental degradation, slaughter, or cholesterol, why not enjoy plant-based alternatives? To see how far plant-based burgers have come, check out Beyond Meat's new Beast Burger and Impossible Foods' Impossible Cheeseburger.
Ready to help wildlife, ecosystems, and the planet by eating more veg meals? Check out www.chooseveg.com for recipes, meal plans, and nutrition info.
(1) According to the Forest Service, the U.S. has 770 million acres of rangeland. The total acreage of the U.S. is about 2.3 billion acres.