On Amazon wildfires, cattle production, climate change & consumer fears

Today’s blog tackles a hot topic, literally, as Amanda Radke discusses the Amazon wildfires, climate change, cattle production and eating beef.

Amanda Radke

August 24, 2019

6 Min Read
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Beef Checkoff

“The Earth’s lungs are on fire. I’m so scared for this planet that I don’t even want to have children. I’m going to do my part to curb climate change by eliminating red meat from my diet.”

I read this statement a few days ago on Instagram. It was posted by an old classmate of mine, who grew up in our rural South Dakota community, where cows outnumber people four to one.

The statement mirrors a frenzy of recent social media posts where people are distraught about wildfires occurring in the Amazon rainforest. Folks are blaming cattle production and timber industries for the blaze, and the hashtag #PrayforAmazonia is trending.

More on that later.

The inaccurate link between cattle and climate change continues to plague our industry.

We simply cannot unring the erroneous bell from the U.N. 2006 study, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” that claimed beef production was the main culprit (ahead of transportation and energy) in greenhouse gas emissions.

Think people are all talk and no action in following through and forcing others to follow these extreme plant-based ideologies? Think again.

At London University, for example, a beef ban has been implemented on campus to fight climate change.

According to the UK’s Telegraph, “Goldsmiths, University of London has said it will remove all beef product from its campus shops and cafes. It is part of a new drive by the university to become carbon neutral by 2025, which involves building more solar panels and switching to a ‘clean’ energy supplier.”

Related:Research confirms: Beef production is not a major contributor to climate change

As a result, the mainstream rhetoric appears to be that eating a plant-based diet is the solution to environmental concerns. This messaging is so dangerous for many reasons.

First, without careful supplementation, a plant-based diet is not complete. As a society, our physical and mental health will suffer without nutrient-dense food like beef in our diets.

Second, research conducted at the University of California, Davis shows that even if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%. And if the practice of Meatless Monday were to be adopted by all Americans, there would be a reduction of only 0.5%.

Third, cattle aren’t just beef-makers; they produce by-products, too. From medicinal to leather goods to the makeup beloved by Instagram influencers who are so worried about eating a hamburger and the impact on the planet, cattle benefit our lives each and every day, whether we want to admit it or not.

Fourth, cattle grazing benefits the land. From up-cycling inedible cellulosic material like grass to aerating the soil with their hooves to fertilizing the land with their manure to recycling water to reducing the spread of wildfire by grazing brush, cattle play a major role in maintaining grasslands and forested areas, too.

Related:4 facts on cows & climate change that can’t be ignored

And that brings me back to the rain forest. Scroll through your newsfeed, and you’ll see article after article blaming agriculture and timber on the blaze in the Amazon. Now, I’ve only visited South America briefly during a collegiate study abroad experience, so I’m not going to claim to be an expert on land management down there.

However, I wondered if much like controlled burns (not a hands-off approach to the land) were practiced in Brazil much like they are here in the United States. I did a search and found an article on this topic that gives an explanation to the dramatic wildfire photographs we are seeing on social media.

In an article titled, “The Amazon Rainforest: Why you don’t need to worry,” Ellie McFarland for 71 Republic writes, “Looking at the pictures of the burning Amazon, a sense of tragedy and loss hits most people in the face. But if you look closer, in most of the pictures, it isn’t the forest that’s burning. Most pictures show flat grasslands adjacent to or between patches of the Amazon Rainforest burning. In pictures that do show parts of the Amazon ablaze, it’s very noticeable that the majority of trees are left standing. Healthy trees don’t typically burn in forest fires. It’s the brush and dead fuel that’s burning. This is an entirely different process. It clears out brush that prevents new trees from growing and which can make forest fires worse in the future. These fires also cause ash, which provides the necessary nutrients for saplings to flourish in their new space."

What's more, Climate Nexus reports, "As Dr. Jonathan Foley explained in a lengthy Twitter thread, the Amazon represents at most approximately 6% of the world’s oxygen production, and it is biologically and physically impossible for the Amazon to produce 20% of the world’s oxygen. And in reality, even that 6% is likely an overestimation, given that oxygen production from plant growth is offset by the decomposition from plant death."

Again, I’m not to pretend to be an expert on the rainforest or the Brazilian beef industry, and a wildfire that threatens local communities, homes, public health and the beloved Amazon rain forest is certainly pause for concern. I understand the public sentiment, but I think blaming beef cattle is an easy scapegoat. What's more, seeing celebrities like Khloe Kardashian tell her millions of followers to go plant-based to save the planet is the peak of hypocrisy as she jets from one place to the next on her private planes.

Even as the world speculates about cattle and climate change, I think it's dangerous to throw out the beef cow in the name of planetary health. Today, I want to testify to the things I’m doing to better the land as a cattle rancher in the United States. In case you didn’t know, here in the United States, we efficiently and sustainably produce 20% of the world’s beef with just 9% of the cows. 

For example, our cattle are currently grazing in fields of sorghum sudangrass, a forage that exceeds the height of a grown man and is unrivaled for adding organic matter to soils, tackling soil compaction, suppressing weeds and reducing erosion.

While it’s great grazing now, this winter, the remaining stubble will be used as bedding and a soil cover during the cold months ahead. Our cattle will calve on this sorghum bed, and this winter we’ll rotate where we lay out our hay to maximize the even spread of manure as fertilizer on these fields.

This is just one, of many ways, we incorporate things like cover crops and responsible livestock grazing onto fields that would otherwise just be on a monoculture system where the soil is left bare for much of the year.

Want to learn more about cover crops? Check out this video of Minnesota producer, Andy Linder, who has recently incorporated a wider diversity of crops and livestock onto his Minnesota farm ground.

Cattle, crops and responsible land management complement each other well. That means careful controlled burns, grazing overgrown brush and promoting new growth with a diversity of plants — and all of that is enhanced with the use of the incredible beef cow.

The climate change and cattle link is not going away anytime soon, folks. We must take charge in having these conversations, and it starts with sharing our best management practices and highlighting how we as landowners care for the land instead of depleting it of its resources, as many consumers perceive. Let’s get to work.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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