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Cows vs. Cars?

Po Bronson headshot
Po Bronson / Sep 25, 2018
Without consumers realizing it, the industrial agriculture system commonly attacked as “Big Food” has actually become Big Energy.

How Big Food has become Big Energy

This is a corn field on a small homestead in Iowa. You’ve probably heard the concern that so, so much land is used to grow corn for cattle feed in intensive agriculture — and that if we didn’t eat meat, that land could be put to much better uses. So is that accurate?

Iowa grows more corn than any other state. And only 1% of it is sweet corn for human consumption. The rest is field corn, and only 5% goes to cattle feed. 20% goes into feed for chickens and pigs. 12% is converted into high-fructose corn syrup for unhealthy snacks and sodas. There are a few other uses, but the biggest portion — 53% of all corn grown in Iowa — is made into ethanol, to make up 10% of our gasoline.

corn usage by percent

Another way to say that is: more than half the corn in Iowa goes to feed cars — 10x the amount that goes to feed cows.

We really should be questioning the amount of corn used for fossil-fuel burning cars. Ethanol makes a small dent in the carbon dioxide emissions, but electric vehicles are on the verge of making ethanol unnecessary, and giving us 35 million acres of corn farmland back, to figure out what to do with. 35 million acres is about the same size as the entire state of Iowa, every inch of it. That’s a lot of fertile farmland, just from not feeding cars.

Okay, now let’s talk about deforestation hotspots.

You’ve heard, too, that our constant appetite for meat results in the constant slashing and burning of the Brazilian rainforest to make room for cows and soybeans. In 2004 alone, over 10,000 square miles of the rainforest was cut down. That’s bigger than the size of Maryland. Since 1970, more Brazilian rainforest has been cleared than the size of Alaska.

But if I asked you how bad the problem is in 2018, what would you guess?

Would you imagine that the spiking demand for meat in Asia is causing even worse deforestation in Brazil today, than 15 years ago? Or might you guess that it’s better? And if so, how much better: 20%? 30%?

Brazil has made a lot more progress than most people realize. In 2006, all the major buyers of soybean declared they would refuse to buy any soybeans grown on deforested land. Similarly, slaughterhouses do not buy any cattle without knowing the GPS coordinates of the farm. Supermarkets refuse to buy beef from deforested land. The government protected 50% of the land as national parks. Combined with new tax policies, and carbon offset programs, the rate of deforestation was cut in half by 2007. The country of Norway paid Brazil a whopping $1.1 billion over the last decade to assist their efforts. Satellite monitoring came online. GPS sensors, buried into the bark of trees, helped law enforcement track illegal loggers back to the illegal logging mills, and shut them down. It’s all added up.

Since 2004, there has been an 82% reduction in the deforestation rate in Brazil.

So why hasn’t it stopped entirely … 82% is great, but an area the size of Delaware is still being deforested, annually. Think about it for a minute. If they’re not doing it for the soy, or for the cows, or for the trees? It’s for crude oil. A lot of it headed for American refineries. Most of it goes to California, because clean air standards prevent our refineries from processing Canadian heavy crude. Oil and gas fields in the Amazon that will eventually cover the same amount of land as the state of Texas are being proposed, by American and Chinese refineries; the election of the ‘Trump of the Tropics,’ Jair Bolsonaro, makes these oilfield auctions a certainty.

tropical jungle landscape

So it’s not cows anymore that are causing the deforestation of Brazil. Once again, it’s cars.

So let’s combine what’s happening in Iowa — which is that plants are being fed to cars — with deforestation. How much land is being deforested for the growing of car fuel? Indonesia and Malaysia are looking at a 6x increase in deforestation, because they are growing export palm oil to make biofuels to meet emissions standards in many countries. Rainforests the size of West Virginia are on deck to be chopped down over the next decade. This is horribly tragic, because they’re specifically doing this to meet outdated environmental requirements. Every organization that studies this practice notes that, when you account for the deforestation, biofuels are not 20% better than crude oil, they’re 100% worse.

In Argentina, soybean farming has spread across the Gran Chaco forest to increase biofuel production.

While US laws don’t allow deforested land to provide our biofuels, the other countries just send us their good biofuel, and send their bad biofuel elsewhere. 100 million gallons of Indonesia’s palm-based biofuel is imported by the US. Two out of every three gallons of US biofuel import come from Argentina, over 400 million gallons. This past summer, the EPA reported to Congress that our biofuel requirements were specifically causing deforestation around the world. Even then, the EPA tried to raise ethanol and biodiesel requirements. Growing gasoline has been a steady income for farmers.

Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, and India are all seeing increasing deforestation to grow the oil-rich plant jatropha. It’s actually toxic to eat — so it’s entirely for biofuels.

Without consumers realizing it, the industrial agriculture system commonly attacked as “Big Food” has actually become Big Energy.

We can confirm this characterization by looking at, simply, the number of cows over time. Cows are what traditionally caused deforestation and land-clearing. And so it’s intuitive: as global demand for meat increases rapidly, the amount of land devoted to cows has to also increase rapidly. So ingrained is this logic that we often don’t even bother to double-check the assumption.

Let’s look at China. In 2006, they had 87 million beef cattle. Ten years later, they had 82 million. Australia exports a lot of beef to China. But the country has gone from 28 million head to 25 million in ten years. India has 10 million fewer cattle. The US has 5 million fewer in a decade (and 50 million less since 1970). This is all FAO data. In most places in the world, the number of cows is actually going down.

Across all of South America and Central America, combined, the population of cattle is almost level over a decade. It’s inching up slowly — a third of one percent a year — but that clearly does not explain the continued deforestation of the Amazon and Gran Chaco.

Meanwhile, the number of cars on the world’s roads — in that same period of time — has gone up rapidly. The world had 960,000 cars on the road in 2007. A decade later, 1.3 billion. That’s an increase of 35%. To feed those cars, we are extracting more oil and growing more soybean, palm, and corn, which is made into biogas.

Soybean farm

Deforestation has always been one of the biggest causes of climate change. Prior to 2007, deforestation was indeed attributed, primarily, to cows. But in 2007, world governments mandated ethanol and biodiesel be mixed into gasoline for vehicles. So, since 2007, the reason for continued deforestation has shifted to the transport sector.

This is one reason why climate change analyses have changed so dramatically. Any report based on old data is going to point a finger at cows. A report based on current data is going to point at cars.

The granddaddy report of them all was the United Nations’ 2006 report put out by the Food and Agriculture Organization. It was called “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It was the first report to really make the comparison between the livestock sector (cows) and the transportation sector (cars). It was also the first report to really sound the alarm about methane emissions from cows. (Pigs and chickens are not ruminants, so are very small sources of GHG emissions.)

“Livestock’s Long Shadow” was written in 2006 by FAO lead analyst Henning Steinfeld. But in the fall of 2018, Steinfeld co-authored an essay for the Thompson Reuters Foundation, explicitly warning everyone that it’s wrong to compare livestock to transportation anymore. Deforestation (not direct emissions) was always the majority of the livestock contribution to climate change. As the primary use of deforested land has shifted, Steinfeld warns that old comparisons are “flawed.”

Many new climate change reports still pull in old datasets, and because of that, conflate the issue, ignoring the way land is being used to feed cars. (Such as the recent study by an Oxford graduate student that the WeWork corporation relied on.)

Another prominent academic struggling to correct the record is none other than Michael Mann. Mann is director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. He’s a legend. He was in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. You’ve all seen his graph, widely known as “the hockey stick,” that showed a thousand years of global surface temperatures, with a sudden and very steep rise since 1900. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change credited Mann’s work when they were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Look at these tweets where he’s trying to correct the impression that meat is the #1 enemy in the fight to stop global warming:

tweet 03

tweet 02

tweet 01

What’s Next?

To be clear, we need to do everything we can, including eat less meat. And India, which has 30% of the world’s cows but doesn’t eat them, has to figure out how to reduce their emissions, too.

The world eats 68 million tons of beef every year. It’s a lot. But we mine 7.4 billion tons of coal — 109 times more by weight — and burn it. Coal is 78% carbon. We pull another 5 billion tons of oil out of the earth (some 36 billion barrels), which we also burn.

Nobody has done more, for longer, to say we’re underestimating the relative impact of cars and coal than UC Davis professor Frank Mitloehner. Today, Frank Mitloehner is on the FAO’s Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance steering committee, as Committee Chair. He and Steinfeld are colleagues, and they are cooperating on a global summit for the FAO. They met a few years after Steinfeld had written “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Mitloehner was doing a research trial at a commercial dairy farm; he had rigged up the farm with analyzers to measure all the emissions. Steinfeld wanted to see it. They spent the day together.

Over time, Mitloehner felt that “Livestock’s Long Shadow” misrepresented the comparison of livestock and transport in contributing to climate change. The livestock calculation Steinfeld had made was a complete life-cycle analysis. But the transport sector’s was not — it only counted direct emissions. It did not include the impact of oil drilling, refining, shipping the crude and gas, or the manufacturing of all that equipment, or the coal-smoke to make electricity to run those factories. It did not include oil spills, crude gushers, or the pollution from tar sands extraction. It didn’t count our 553,000 underground storage tanks, in the US alone — the largest single threat to groundwater quality. It did not count deforestation for oil or biofuel, of any sort. But for livestock, Steinfeld analyzed all of the equivalent.

Mitloehner and his UC Davis colleagues ended up writing a rebuttal, and the FAO publicly admitted that Mitloehner was right. In 2013, the UN issued a corrected report, removing any comparison to the transportation sector.

“I used to be the only one fighting back,” Mitloehner told me. But now he has legends like Michael Mann and the very author of Livestock’s Long Shadow on his side.

I worry, though, they are still losing the battle for the mindshare of the next generation.

Intel, Netflix, Apple, and Microsoft are powered by 100% renewable energy. Retailers REI and Kohl’s are. Georgetown, Texas, north of Austin, runs on 100% renewables. Hundreds of corporations are making the pledge to be there by 2025, and many huge stockholders have pulled their money out of coal and gas — Lloyd’s of London, Nippon Life Insurance, the Dutch financial firm ING, and many pension funds.

But we have only 9 colleges using 100% renewable energy. Students on campus should be pounding on the doors of college administrators, demanding their school go 100% renewable energy and divest from coal and gasoline.

Meanwhile, we have 157 college campuses running Meatless Monday programs, putting up posters telling students it’s more important to not eat meat than drive an electric vehicle. And an entire generation is eating it up.