Most of the public has heard the mantra by now that cows’ “emissions” hurt the environment by releasing methane into the atmosphere. But there are greater fixes we can make in terms of what and how we eat that will help the environment more.
Michael Pollan’s bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” delves deep into the food chain, examining what goes into making: a fast-food meal, a meal from Whole Foods, a meal grown from a local farm, and a meal hunted and gathered by himself. The results are fascinating, but the nuggets of information on the environmental effect of our eating habits and our food industry are not to be overlooked.
In the fast-food meal, Pollan traces the food back to a specific cow, raised in tight quarters in a feedlot with a diet composed of corn. He then follows the government-subsidized corn’s journey to the feedlot where the cow eats it, then he follows the cow through its development until it ends up as a hamburger.
“Follow the corn from this bunk back to where it grows and I’d find myself back in the middle of the 125,00-mile-square monoculture under a steady rain of pesticide and fertilizer. Keep going, and I could follow the nitrogen runoff from that fertilizer all the way down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, adding its poison to an eight-thousand-square-mile zone so starved of oxygen nothing but algae can live in it. And then go farther still, follow the fertilizer (and the diesel fuel and the petrochemical pesticides) needed to grow the corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.”
Pollan then estimates that the cow he follows will have consumed in his lifetime the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil (nearly a barrel). His research then discovers that most of the Whole Foods meal goes through a variation of this, but there are small doors available for one cow at a time to spend 2 minutes outside, allowing them to be termed “free range” or the feedlots serve up pesticide-filled grass instead of corn.
In finding a locally grown meal, he goes to a grass farm and sees how the farmer uses all-natural products and allows his cows to be fed off grass roaming free in a pasture (this is how they used to eat, before corn.) Since the farm itself provides a natural ecosystem, there is no need for fertilizer or pesticides. Since it’s grown locally, there is no need to transport it halfway across the world; it is eaten by local consumers. It allows Pollan to create a stunning hypothesis:
“If the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove 14 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road.”
This type of overhaul seems unlikely, but the goal is to simply become more aware. I know, eating locally is costly (because corn is government-subsidized, it lowers the true cost of food), but it’s more virtuous and tastes better. And don’t forget it’s better for the environment – even if the cows sometimes “emit” their own gases.