Part I of a Trilogy
PATRICIA REMY – The beginnings of this article began to stir when I glimpsed a fleeting tagline in my Guardian Twitter feed. As I prematurely deleted it, I thought my eye caught a phrase claiming that bison emit only 40% as much methane as cattle do. Being a meat eater, who is interested in eating as sustainable a diet as possible, I wanted to research that alleged factoid.
Spoiler alert: It turns out to be not that simple. It’ll take a while to get there.
First, a declaration of my own bias. I eat meat. I’ve tried in the past to follow the food rules laid out decades ago by Frances Moore Lappé. Ellen Buchman Ewald took them up and developed her Recipes for a Small Planet (1972). Despite adhering rigorously to the recommended regimen, involving several attempts over a number of years, after a few months I always ended up anemic. The Small Planet diet includes eggs and dairy, so it is not strictly vegetarian. It certainly does not qualify as vegan. Despite the animal protein present in eggs and dairy, my blood iron fell below par every darn time.
So, feeling disappointed in myself and moderately guilty, I went back to eating meat several times a week. As a Greenie, I take care to consume humanely and locally raised chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. The fish I eat comes almost exclusively from the North Channel. Sometime I hope to shoot my own wild turkey for Thanksgiving. All of this seems like a shabby compromise, but it is the best I can do.
There are questions, though. For every hen which is born to lay eggs there is a rooster chick. Do we shred them at hatching, a common practice in large, commercial chicken factories, or raise them free-run for poultry?
A cow has to bear a calf to produce milk. Barring some GMO-modification to this most basic of animal functions, for every female dairy calf there is a little steer born. It makes sense to raise the latter free-range for beef. (I realize that beef and dairy cattle are two different beasts, but let’s not quibble for now.)
There could be artificial options for the protein and essential amino acids found concentrated in animal flesh, I suppose: GMO-mushrooms with an iron-fixing gene, soya which is engineered to produce a concentration of essential amino acids, super beans. We’ll get into the planting of crops later in Part II.
For now, back to my meat guilt. When I read the Guardian Tweet on bison as low methane emitters, I indulged in a moment of relief. Bison could replace beef in my diet.
There are at least two bison farms within a responsible driving distance of Peterborough. There is one near Uxbridge. I found another, the Century Game Farm, just outside of Warkworth. There Elaine and Rob Potters were kind enough to grant me an interview. Rob became a bison enthusiast while helping as a teenager on the now–no-more bison farm on the western extension of Sherbrooke St. in Peterborough. Elaine grew up in Shropshire and had experience even as a child with raising horses and sheep. Potters showed me their farm, explained the rudiments of raising bison, and provided me with background literature. Their bison graze together with elk; these two species share the same ecosystem in the wild, too.
Peterborough shoppers might remember Romeyn Stevenson, who sold grass-fed beef at the farmers’ market for years. For part of a decade I did odd jobs sporadically at his Ashburnham Farm and experienced happy cattle grazing on pastures and in the woods. From Harley farms out by Keene, humanely raised pork, chicken, and beef is available. Their products are available at Kelcey’s in East City. Bison or cattle: it means a life of hard work to raise either of these species. It takes dedication and passion. No one does it just for the money; nobody gets rich at it. You have to love the farmers’/ranchers’ life.
Back to methane, though, and a reminder of what the fuss is all about. According to NOAA (National Office of Atmospheric Administration), livestock farming generates 27% of human-caused methane emissions. Human-caused. Even small concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have a large effect. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 28 times as active as carbon dioxide. On average a molecule of methane will remain in the atmosphere for 8-9 years until it is reduced to carbon dioxide and water. (The carbon dioxide molecule stays in the atmosphere for 300-1000 years, but that is another story.)
Here’s the thing. In their own version of changing water into wine, cattle, bison, and other ruminants can make meat and milk out of grass. Grass consists largely of cellulose; humans cannot digest it. We glean nutrients from grass by eating the meat of cattle, bison, elk, moose, sheep, goats, and, God forbid, giraffes. (Horses, kangaroos, koalas, and rabbits, probably some dinosaurs before them, even termites, each developed digestive systems which can cope with cellulose.)
Ruminants and grass have a long history with each other. Grasses evolved 55-70 million years ago, ruminants 50 million years ago. Grass seeds are spread by the wind and by the grazing ruminants on their coats and in their manure. It is valid to claim that grasslands and ruminants co-evolved. Before European settlement, buffalo (as bison are also called) roamed the area of what was to become the USA from the foothills of the Rockies in the west to as far east as what was to become the western boundary of the state of Georgia.
Ruminants use a trick. In the bovine ruminants’ four-chambered stomach there reside bacteria, eaten with the grass on which they dwell, which break down and convert the cellulose. These bacteria have evolved to live and work happily in the stomach of ruminants; ruminants have evolved to absorb the nutrients released by the bacteria: sugars, starches, and amino acids. I emphasize this co-evolution, because it is truly a wonder of nature.
What humans find not so wonderful is that the nutritive processing performed by the bacteria in the ruminant gut produces methane, which cattle (or elk or moose or bison) belch into the atmosphere. For tens of millions of years this was of no account. Before European settlers came to Turtle Island, 20-40 million, or according to other estimates, 40-60 million bison roamed the plains, merrily belching methane to their bovid hearts’ content, without contributing to global warming (which at that time was non-existent anyway).
Today there live an estimated 1.4 billion cattle in the world, 94 million in the USA and 12.24 million in Canada (figures from 2022). The cattle on Turtle Island occupy, toward the west, the ecological niche originally populated by bison, antelope, and elk. Toward the east, they have settled, together with the incoming Europeans, the preserve of moose and deer.
There are currently 8 billion humans, most of whom want or need to eat some amount of meat regularly. It is fair to say that we humans have generated a cluster of conditions which are bad for us and for the planet which sustains us. A subset of these conditions involves ruminants, meat, and methane.
(More in Part II)