A Ruminatory Ramble On Population, Ruminant Methane, and Non-Arable Land

Part II of a Trilogy


Population – An Essential Digression

Maybe you’ve guessed it, too. It’s not the cattle (or bison or other ruminants) who are the problem. It’s the segment of the 8 billion size human population, mainly in the richer nations, who want or need their meat as part of their diet. (In Part I, I have already confessed to being an obligate carnivore).

One means of reducing the demand for meat and the number of bovids emitting methane is, quite simply, to eat less animal flesh. “The US Department of Agriculture recommends…consuming no more than… 1.8 ounces of red meat, 1.5 ounces of poultry, and 0.4 ounces of seafood per day, based on a 2000 calories-per-day diet”. 1 ounce = 28.35 grams. Thoroughly doable; I can handle that.
Stats on meat consumption are all over the map, e.g. anywhere from 25.7 kg to 115 kg per year in Canada in 2022, which comes down to 70.4 – 315 gm daily. One optimist gave a figure of 41 gm daily. Meat consumption seems to be decreasing from a high in 1980. Whichever figure you take, we carnivores still have a long way to go. As a reference: A “quarter-pounder “ meat patty weighs 113.5 gm), you know, the standard burger.

The other obvious measure, and the solution to a number of other pressing ecological problems, would be, here it comes, as politically incorrect as it can get — over the next three decades and by democratically determined means, e.g. a lottery system — to limit the number of human births.

Now, before you tar-and-feather me as a witch-bitch, consider the following.
Governments and the UNO could start by distributing the morning-after pill gratis to all women of child-bearing age. Rampant population growth occurs where people are poor and have few life choices. Under these conditions women and men both affirm their personal worth by having children, unfortunately often more offspring than they can support.

Because of poverty and lack of other venues into which to channel their life energy, there are some, I emphasize some men, who feel confirmed in their masculinity only when they see, as a consequence of their potency, a woman’s belly swell. There is the other side, too. To be fair: Some women feel justified in their existence only when they have been chosen by a man to bear a child. The more children, the stronger the affirmation. The joy at the birth of a new world citizen flags when the means of support are not available, or when another birth is imminent. The misery of malnutrition and starvation follow.

“It takes a village to have a child.” Motherhood and fatherhood, I would argue, encompass more than biological reproduction. For persons who do not have biological children, the village is their family, to which they contribute in any number of ways with their nurturing skills.

Consider this: Allow each woman and each man in their lifetime one child, i.e. together one child. For a second child there would be a lottery. Those who wished a second child could register and take part in the draw. I betcha a whole tankerload of timbits that the population of the next generation would be lesser by about two billion individuals. Repeat in the next generation. And the next. From the scattered estimates I have gathered, the Earth could sustain a population of two billion humans, who are prepared to live simply, for almost-ever.

Implement — worldwide — these accompanying measures: Tax the oligarchs to provide education and economic opportunity for the impoverished. Eliminate corruption. Set up decent pension plans. Establish universal health care to eliminate the need in poorer countries for having a large family as insurance for survival in old age. Provide everybody an education. Survival in the Anthropocene demands equity. I know, you’ve heard it before: rainbows and unicorns.

Ruminant Methane

In one typical, further, sad example of the deflection of responsibility, humans talk about cattle. Yep, it’s them durn cows.

And we get into a discussion of which species, bison or cattle, emits more methane, encourages more biodiversity, provides healthier meat. If you really want to get into the details, congrats! I recommend a book, The Ecological Buffalo by Wes Olson and Johana Janelle and an article by Karin Lindquist, a self-confessed range nerd, and her blog “Ruminations” of Feb 12, 2019. Lindquist makes the point that where methane belching is concerned, the main issue is management, what cattle or bison are fed, and when, and what kind of grazing land is available.

Briefly, bison meat is somewhat leaner than beef and contains a wider range of minerals.
According to FoodStruct’s in-depth nutrition chart on the basis of 100 grams:
Beef is richer in zinc, and vitamin B12, while bison meat is higher in selenium, vitamin B1, iron, copper, and vitamin B2.
Bison meat’s daily need coverage for selenium is 17% higher.
Bison meat has 2 times less saturated fat than beef. Beef has 5.895g of saturated fat, while bison meat has 3.489g. [If you want the exact link for this data, send me an e-mail.]

Bison require a broader landscape than cattle and stronger paddocks. They make wallows, which fill seasonally with water and attract birds and insects. They spread seeds. Birds use tufts of their fur to build nests.

“Grasslands fix carbon as they grow; but they have evolved to be eaten. If they were no longer grazed, the grasses would grow rank and stop fixing carbon. and they would in all likelihood burn.” (Cattle and Methane: More Complicated Than Meets The (Rib-) Eye, Levandowsky and Wahlquist, 17-08-2012). Ruminants eat grass; they eliminate nutrients and seeds in their faeces. There is a symbiosis among grazers and the grass and the soil just as there is a symbiosis between the bacteria growing on the grass and the ruminants’ digestive system.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, people who raise cattle, bison, and other ruminants, are at least as aware of the methane problem as are we other citizens. Researchers point out that cattle (or bison) also sequester carbon. A bit of a weak argument; you and I do that with our bodies, too. It gets better, though.

Non-arable Land

While cows and bison do belch methane, they also upcycle nutrients which are otherwise not available to humans. There is a lot of land, termed marginal, whose soil is not suitable for agriculture, i.e. not useful for growing crops. Allowing ruminants to graze it free-range gives them a life; I am thinking of E.O Wilson’s “Half Earth” here.
According to the book 1491 (by Charles C. Mann) the indigenous hunters of Turtle Island established very successful mega game parks. So doing allows the humanly non-digestible vegetation growing on the land to be converted into the protein required by H. sapiens’ metabolism. Perhaps humans might even consider sharing it with other predators who might roam a future ecosystem of restored grasslands and prairie. “Home, home on the range”, where the deer, antelope, elk, bison, and cattle play!

You’ve probably noticed that soil has been mentioned several times. Would fertilizing the poorer soils be a more helpful strategy? Then, protein–rich crops could be grown and the marginal land freed from the methane-belchers. We’ll get to that in Part III.

Hear first a word from a Cornell university professor, who explains that data on methane emissions is measured by satellites. According to Robert Howarth, the increase in methane emissions, which comes mainly from the USA, correlates to shale gas emissions due to fracking and the consequent release of methyl hydrates. During the past decade, he remarks, the number of cattle in the USA has actually decreased. So the increase in measured methane can’t be because of them. It ain’t the durn cows after all.

As our very aware Greenzine readers will already know, it’s not just fracking. Methane from methyl hydrates in the soil is also freed when permafrost melts because of general global warming. Yep, once again, humans at work. To be continued….


  1. “Establish universal health care to eliminate the need in poorer countries for having a large family as insurance for survival in old age.” If couples know that they do not need a large family to take care of them in their old age, statistically they stop having large families. They stop on a dime. An example is Quebec. So work on social justice and the population growth will take care of itself.

  2. “rainbows and unicorns” maybe. But Patricia and Margaret’s advocacy for a humane and equitable path going forward nail it. In a word it’s called “sharing”. While that may be commie talk around some tables, the world’s happiest counties are pretty good at it.
    That said, either our species shows some capacity for reining in our numbers and consumption ie., population and self control – or nature will do it for us.

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