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Farting Cows, Factory Farms and the Climate Crisis: We Need a Green New Deal

"Because of the Green New Deal, entirely new thinkers are now at the policy table instead of just Big Ag and Monsanto writing our public policy for us—from regenerative agriculture experts and family farmers, to indigenous leaders with intergenerational knowledge." - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Instagram post April 7, 2019


The audacious, game-changing Green New Deal (GND) Resolution, backed by the youth-powered Sunrise Movement, introduced in Congress on February 7, by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has ignited a long-overdue debate on federal policy, including fundamental energy, infrastructure, food, farming and land-management policies.


At last count supported by 103 Democratic House and Senate members—including leading candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and other contenders for the 2020 presidential race—the GND has generated more enthusiasm and controversy than perhaps any other federal policy initiative since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


The GND calls for a World War II-scale mobilization or “Moon Shot” to address the global climate emergency, combined with radical policy change (green jobs for all, universal health care, free public education, $15/hour minimum wage) to address the interrelated environmental, public health and economic crises gripping the nation.


This bold new proposal has galvanized unprecedented mass support— which is perhaps why it’s also provoked ferocious counter-attacks. The Trump Administration, Fox News and Big Business have repeatedly denounced OC and the GND as “dangerous,” “economically devastating,” “communist” and “anti-American.”


Adding fuel to the fire was a February rough draft memo of GND talking points, prematurely posted by AOC’s staff. The not-yet-ready-for-primetime memo included the following passage: 


"We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero."


The “farting cows” and “airplanes” comment, taken out of context by GND opponents, set off a media frenzy, prompting corporate agribusiness and the Trump echo-chamber to screech that AOC wanted to “take away our hamburgers” and stop everyone from flying on airplanes.


It’s time to set the record straight. Let's not throw out something as brilliant as the GND just because opponents of the GND deliberately took a passage out of a draft FAQ and distorted its meaning.


Industrial food and farming: getting to the root of the problem


Beyond the hyper-partisan rhetoric, let’s clear the air on the relative size of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock and airplanes.


First of all, CO2 emissions from airplanes—2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution—are important. As rapidly as possible we must develop renewable aviation fuels and reduce fossil fuel-intensive air travel, while also scaling up mass transportation with renewable energy-powered electric trains, trucks, buses and vehicles.


This transportation revolution will take a while. Millions of people will still be flying on fossil fuel-burning, greenhouse gas-emitting airplanes in 2030, and driving and riding in gasoline and diesel power vehicles. That’s okay. Because transportation-related CO2 emissions, though they clearly contribute to global warming, are only part of the problem.


Methane emissions from livestock also amount to about 2.5 percent of all GHGs, approximately the same as air travel. But on the whole, most methane emissions come from leaking oil and natural gas rigs and pipelines, methane-belching landfills, biomass burning and flooded rice paddies—not cows.


And of the methane emissions that do come from livestock, the majority come from the burping, farting and manure pits of 50 million confined animals on feedlots and factory farms—not the burping, farting and defecation of 40-50 million grassfed cattle grazing naturally on pastures and grasslands. Why is that? Because healthy soils contain something called “methanotrophic bacteria” that actually consume and decompose methane, including the methane emitted by properly grazed large animals.


Along with fossil fuels, the main driver of global warming in the U.S. is our food and farming system. Far exceeding the 5 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases coming from airplane pollution and farting cows on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), are the enormous emissions—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)—coming from our corporate-controlled, industrialized food, farming and land-use practices, which include deforestation, wetlands and grasslands destruction.  


These food, farming and land use emissions, amounting to an estimated 44-57 percent of all U.S. and global greenhouse gases, arise primarily from fossil fuel-intensive factory farms, industrialized crop production, petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, and energy-intensive food processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation and waste. If we are serious about survival and reaching zero-net emissions by 2030, we’re going to have to fundamentally transform how we grow food and manage land. Farmers and consumers will need to move away from industrial, chemical- and fossil-fuel production and consumption.


Yes, we have a cow problem, but . . .


In fact, part of the agricultural GHG emissions in the U.S. and worldwide do come from the belching and farting and accumulated manure of 50 million hapless bovines confined in factory farm dairies and feedlots.


These 50 million “animal units,” in corporate agribusiness speak, are confined and treated like milk machines by Kraft and Dean Foods. Those cattle not producing milk are being fattened-up for slaughter by multi-billion dollar transnationals like Cargill, JBS and Tyson’s, to supply cheap meat and dairy for giant supermarket chains like Walmart and Kroger, or the fast-food assembly lines of McDonald’s and Burger King.


Besides the fossil-fuel-intensive beef and dairy industries (with the animal grain production, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and processing components responsible for most GHGs, rather than methane), massive amounts of GHG pollution are also coming from industrial-scale CAFO pig and poultry operations, which produce 90 percent or more of the meat and eggs consumed by Americans.


It’s America’s CAFOs and factory farms, and industrial-scale grain commodity operations—the largest 5 percent of U.S. farms produce 75 percent of all farm commodities—that generate most of our emissions, not our small and medium-sized family farms and ranches.


In reality, very little methane and other GHG are coming from the 50 million grass-fed cows and calves, or sheep, goats and bison, grazing on the pastures and rangelands of the nation’s 600,000 family farm-scale cattle operations. Why is this?


Healthy pastures, grazed traditionally and regeneratively—meaning they aren’t overgrazed or undergrazed—not only give rise to healthy, deep-rooted, carbon-sequestering native grasses, they also generate healthy, aerated soil that contains not only lots of organic carbon, but trillions of soil microorganisms, including methanotrophic bacteria, which actually consume the methane emitted by cows when they fart, belch or defecate.


According to the experts at the Savory Institute:


"Healthy, well-aerated soils—a characteristic quality of grasslands under Holistic Planned Grazing—harbor bacteria called methanotrophs, which break down methane. Soil-based decomposition of methane may be equal to or greater than ruminant methane production, depending on animal density, soil type and soil health."


So yes, America’s farting cows are a problem, but only if they are confined, milked and/or fattened up in an inhumane, profoundly unnatural feedlots or CAFOs, where there’s no grass, no soil life, nor methanotropic bacteria to keep things in balance.


If properly grazed, America’s cows can be part of the solution.


Michael Pollan, perhaps the most well-known food writer in the U.S., elegantly describes how plant photosynthesis and the holistic grazing of animals draws down carbon from the atmosphere:

Consider what happens when the sun shines on a grass plant rooted in the earth. Using that light as a catalyst, the plant takes atmospheric CO2, splits off and releases the oxygen, and synthesizes liquid carbon–sugars, basically. Some of these sugars go to feed and build the aerial portions of the plant we can see, but a large percentage of this liquid carbon—somewhere between 20 and 40 percent—travels underground, leaking out of the roots and into the soil. The roots are feeding these sugars to the soil microbes—the bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rhizosphere—in exchange for which those microbes provide various services to the plant: defense, trace minerals, access to nutrients the roots can’t reach on their own. That liquid carbon has now entered the microbial ecosystem, becoming the bodies of bacteria and fungi that will in turn be eaten by other microbes in the soil food web. Now, what had been atmospheric carbon (a problem) has become soil carbon, a solution—and not just to a single problem, but to a great many problems.

“Besides taking large amounts of carbon out of the air—tons of it per acre when grasslands [and croplands] are properly managed… that process at the same time adds to the land’s fertility and its capacity to hold water. Which means more and better food for us...

“This process of returning atmospheric carbon to the soil works even better when ruminants are added to the mix. Every time a calf or lamb shears a blade of grass, that plant, seeking to rebalance its “root-shoot ratio,” sheds some of its roots. These are then eaten by the worms, nematodes, and microbes—digested by the soil, in effect, and so added to its bank of carbon. This is how soil is created: from the bottom up.


We need net-zero emissions by 2030


We’re not going to stop all greenhouse gas emissions in 11 years, no matter what we do. Therefore, our goal for 2030 must be net-zero emissions, whereby the amount of GHGs we’re still putting up into the atmosphere is cancelled out by the amount of atmospheric CO2 that we are drawing down into our soils, forests and regenerated landscapes.


Net-zero emissions in 2030 will have the same climate impact as zero emissions, slowing down global warming enough so that we can move into the next phase (2030-2050) of net-negative emissions, when we will be drawing down increasingly more carbon from the atmosphere than we are putting up, thereby starting to actually reverse global warming.


We’re not going to accomplish this Great Transition with minor, slow-motion reforms. We need renewable energy combined with regenerative, carbon-sequestering food, farming and land use ASAP.


There’s no way around it. If we’re going to reverse global warming, we’re going to have to get rid of factory farms and the near-monopoly control of our food and farming system by giant corporations.


We need a Green New Deal for both urban and rural America, consumers and family farmers alike. And we need it now.


Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.