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Let’s stop blaming cows for climate change

Where’s the beef? Not in Epicu­rious, one of the most well-known and popular food-related sites on the Internet. In April, the website announced, “To encourage more sustainable cooking, we won’t be publishing new beef recipes.”

The move is all about being “pro-planet,” Epicurious editors claim, describing beef production as one of the world’s worst climate offenders. They’re referring to the fact that ruminants emit methane as part of their normal digestive processes. Methane is considered a key polluter of the atmosphere.

Yes, once again, cattle are catching flak for passing gas.

Epicurious is just one of many jumping on the bandwagon to blame agriculture for climate change, a hot-button topic right now. More and more food com­panies and restaurants are making promises to deliver “sustainable” farm products. The chef at one of New York City’s most famous restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, recently told patrons that the menu would no longer include meat or seafood when the establishment reopens in June after its pandemic closure. Livestock production is not sustainable, the big-city swanky restaurant cited as the reason for abandoning its most popular dishes.

Agriculture’s role in environmen­tal and food sustainability is more complex than activists and social media influencers want the public to believe. Their actions are often based on flawed assumptions and skewed statistics. In reality, farm­ing accounts for a small portion of climate-change influences. The much-villainized beef cow only con­tributes 3.3% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The majority comes from electric­ity and heat production at 25%, industry at 23% and transportation at 29%, according to the EPA.

Climate-change zealots who want to point fingers at farmers don’t take into account the numerous agricultural practices that are part of the solution. They don’t consider that grazing land is often unsuitable for crops. Or that cattle consume plant materials—such as grasses, corn stalks, distillers grains and more—that are inedible to humans. Or that beef is a highly nutritious, complete protein source that’s need­ed to feed the rapidly growing glob­al population. Or that cattle provide byproducts used to make medicines and household goods. Nothing in beef production is wasted.

Worst of all, the people speak­ing out against beef consumption have likely never set foot on a cattle operation. They don’t see the dedicated care that farmers and ranchers give to their land and animals—more care, sometimes, than they give themselves. They don’t see the positive experiences and character-building lifestyle that animal agriculture provides these farm families. And they don’t see the proactive steps that farmers are taking every single day to make their farms more efficient, produc­tive and, yes, sustainable for their families and future generations.

For example, livestock producers use precision agriculture to apply plant nutrients and rotational grazing to make the most out of their hay and pastures. These practices help protect water quality and build healthy soils. Grazing livestock also helps sequester soil carbon, further reducing environmental impacts.

As beef farms become more pro­ductive, they also lower their carbon footprint. Compared to livestock production in the 1970s, today’s farmers and ranchers produce the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle. There is a direct link between greenhouse gas emissions and the efficiency with which any industry uses natural resources, and agriculture is leading the way.

All of these changes were self-driven by farmers and the ag industry. It didn’t take government mandates or boycotts by food web­sites and Michelin-star restaurants.

With climate change in the spotlight—from the White House to White Castle—agriculture can no longer be quiet. We have to be a vocal part of the conversation about our contributions to sustainability for our farms and the food system.

I realize there’s room for improve­ment. MFA and its members are doing their part by offering pro­grams and participating in projects that lead change in stewardship and conservation. You can read more about these efforts in Ernie Verslues’ Viewpoint column.

The bottom line is that decisions surrounding climate change should be made on science and true sus­tainability, not societal pressure.

And personally, recipe websites and restaurants without meat have no appeal to me. On my plate, beans or beets will never be a good substitute for beef.

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