Tackling biodiversity: What if we released all cows into the wild?
The aim is to find an action or set of actions that reduces the impact to within the uncertainty range or boundary (Rockstrom and Willet, EAT Commission). The EAT Commission suggests shifts away from animal sources and toward diets rich in plant-based foods. Those opposed to initiatives like these seem to always ask what are we going to do with all the animals if we are not eating them? This is an important question as more than 820 million people still lack sufficient food and many more consume either low-quality or too many foods (Rockstrom and Willet, EAT Commission). But agricultural priorities will need to shift, and livestock production needs to be considered in specific contexts. Therefore, I propose a thought experiment: What would happen if we released all the cows into the wild?
One thought currently circulating among scientists is that cows will one day rule the Earth. Human caused climate change will force humans into extinction or to flee Earth for other habitable planets, thereby allowing cows to inherit the planet. There are 1.5 billion cows across the globe due to widespread prioritization of cows over other species (Dymoke, 2018). Thus, by massively expanding our global industrial meat production, human beings have turned Earth into Planet Cow (Rogers, 2018). According to Smith et al, further extinctions will continue the pattern of biodiversity loss and body size degrading [loss of megafauna and other large animal species], thus the largest mammal on Earth in a few hundred years may well be a domestic cow (Smith et al., 2018). Stephen Hawking proposed that after humans die off, cows would simply graze and migrate North before the climate became too hot and Earth becomes uninhabitable for even them, leaving nothing but the cockroaches.
While I do think this is a fun thought, it is not an especially useful one. Releasing billions of cows into the wild will have its own detrimental impact as keeping them locked up, as change in one area will impact another.
An alternative solution is to utilize the very animal that is causing so much destruction in a method called “mob grazing.” Mob grazing can be used to benefit biodiversity through managed grazing that creates an open habitat that is suitable for plants and animals that cannot persist beneath tall, thick grass (Lunt). Unfortunately, this method is not generalizable as a Victorian study found that grazing promoted biodiversity in fertile, well-watered sites but reduced diversity in dry, unproductive areas (Lunt). Yet, a small and growing community of farmers, scientists, and academics believe that raising livestock at current levels and allowing them to mimic the movements of wild herding animals in nature is the trick to producing a healthier soil and keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the ground, the crux of this argument. Supporters argue it allows farmers to produce more meat per acre, without using chemicals or grains, and that the system produces healthier beef. Here is the TED Talk that spurred all the excitement. But there are plenty of scientists who are not in agreement with this thinking, actively arguing the science is flawed. I encourage you to read up on the opposition HERE.
Some scientists are using vaccines to impact the gut microbes in cows to tackle global greenhouse gas emissions. This approach is meant to allow people to continue eating meat and dairy products while lessening the impact the livestock industry has on the environment (Watts, 2019). The vaccination is intended to stimulate anti-archaea antibodies in saliva, which are then carried to the rumen as the animals swallow to mitigate methane production.
In my humble opinion, both approaches are symptomatic thinking that only further enables a global economy’s fixation with meat and dairy. These efforts may help but not on their own. As the EAT Commission suggests, concerted strategies, clear targets, perspective shifts, and sheer will are the recipes toward a better and balanced dietary landscape for the world. Mob-grazing and vaccinations are attempts at purifying and maintaining failing systems instead of focusing on efforts that lead to “a new agricultural revolution that is based on sustainable intensification and driven by sustainability and system innovation.” So, although there are attempts here to mitigate climate change and increase biodiversity, it is simply not enough.
Dymoke, Ned. (2018, April 22). Cows will one day rule the earth, say scientists. Retrieved from: https://bigthink.com/news/cows-will-one-day-rule-the-earth-say-scientists
Lunt, Ian. 2012, November 18. Can livestock grazing benefit biodiversity? Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/can-livestock-grazing-benefit-biodiversity-10789
Rogers, K. (2018, May 23). Most of the Mammals on Earth Are Cows Because We’re Addicted to Meat. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/bj3m3w/cows-most-of-mammals-on-earth.
Smith, Felisa A; Smith, Rosemary E. Elliot; Lyons, S Kathleen. (2018, April 2018). Boyd size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary. Retrieved from: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6386/310
Watts, Geoff. (2019, August 6). The cows that could help fight climate change. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190806-how-vaccines-could-fix-our-problem-with-cow-emissions.