Let Them Eat Grass - Free Range Livestock are Better For Environment

A friend and advisor, Chris Tuozzolo, more or less has a CSA for a free-range cow. He told me I should write a post, a rejoinder, actually, to my prior post on how beef causes nearly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of people will think "free range cows must be better for the environment in every way, because they are natural!"

Shortest version: free range cows are better than feedlot cows by a factor of 2-3, putting them closer to pig-meat, but they still aren't amazing.


Other short version: the amount of disinformation on this topic is astounding. You literally can't find a reliable link on the first search page of google. All the articles are either by free market groups (feedlots are market efficient!), corn lobbyists (feedlots use our corn!), or vegans (there is no such thing as good meat to eat!). Much of the information that is available is "science" is in fake journals. In other words, it really is fake information put into journals that are made up to let any information through, provided you pay them to publish it. A reader literally needs an understanding of journal impact factor (ie, ratings of whether journals are real or BS, as it turns out some peer-reviewed journals will literally publish anything for a fee) to figure what's real and fake, and most people without PhDs don't know what impact factor means. In other words, I don't know how the rest of you can pick apart the real from the BS on this topic.

Full version

I did research. Holy crap, the bullshit (heh, punny) information is fed to you with a firehose on this one. This is a prime example of very smart people being paid to lie to you very effectively.

feedlot cows. Pic from EPA.

I'll keep the important information short. Grazing cattle are far better for the environment than feedlot cattle. The best information I can find (published in Science with over 2000 other authors having cited the article in follow-on research) (note, this article is on sustainable food and covers a lot more than meat, but it has a good chart on water use and GHG in varying feeding areas) says the following:

  • Grazing cattle produce half as much methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) per year as feedlot cattle
  • Grazing cattle take 1/5th the water per day
  • Pigs produce about the same GHGs in either setting, but keeping them clean in a feedlot takes 3x as much water
  • Grazing cattle take up to 33% longer to reach edible maturity (but they are leaner, so you get more actual meat). This came from other, less reliable sources, but we'll take it at face value
  • Adjusted for time to market*, feedlot cattle make 50% more GHGs and use 450% more water (looking at you, California, with the 4th most cattle of any state)
  • I think that time-to-market number may be made up, which would make the numbers more like 100% more GHG and 500% more water from feedlots

*That 33% more time to maturity also could be a manufactured number. I can't confirm it from reasonable sources. Even if it is true, then feedlot cows produce more pollution and take more to make.

Other problems with feedlots:

  • It is quite possible that constant antibiotic use in feedlots, constantly fed to animals as a means mean to prevent them from getting sick (increasing profits), leads to antibiotic resistance. So next time you get a case of untreatable gonorrhea from antibiotic resistance, raise a glass to industrial agro-farming (also known as American-style farming).
  • Grazing cows stand apart farther. Feedlot cows stand next to each other, helping spread of disease, so they need more antibiotics
  • Sustainable grazing (not often practiced in the US) promotes the change of deserts to land.
  • Once you start growing grass in desert areas, the grass holds the rainfall in place long enough so it absorbs into the ground rather than running off into rivers, making a positive feedback loop.

Seriously, watch this TED talk. It's starts with a powerful message. "To stop the spread of deserts, we killed a metric fuck-ton of elephants. Desertification still happened. It turns out we killed a bunch of innocent elephants. The way to reverse desertification is to have managed grazing." Don't watch it when drunk though, cause you'll either get very angry or very sad.

Hokay, so, we've now covered that managed grazing can actually reverse desertification, which means aquifers can start to take in more rainwater and some CO2 will be drawn down in the growth of new plants.

Why Vegans hate this

But yes, a subset of vegans (and likely a majority) love to argue that eating meat is an environmental disaster (it does push global warming happen faster), and so it upsets them that grazing cattle may actually be a positive net effect (counting the turning bare desert into growable land). Feedlot beef growth is definitely pretty bad, but it's highly likely that a well-managed grazing system for cattle will result in net positive benefits of environmental restoration.

You can't blame vegans too much for pushing that grazing is bad, because, as the rest of this article points out, it's hard to figure out which is correct data.

Journal Impact Factor and Judith Capper being a fake scientist

Journal impact factor is a measure of how important and useful certain journals are. Science and Nature have high impact factors. Also Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS - pronounced P-nass, best/worst acronym ever), much more rigorous, has a high impact factor. The article I cite above is from Science, which means it was cited 2000 times. As in 2000 other journal articles reference and talk about it. It's kind of a big deal.

One counter article is by a "scientist" named Judith Capper. She publishes articles that say that feedlot farming is less GHG intensive than grazing. Except she published in a journal called Animals. It's literally a fake journal. It isn't listed as having impact factor. What's better, half of the 35 citing authors are her. She cites herself more than anyone else cites her. Pretty much, this is an udder bullshit article (haha) with awful science behind it. Typically when a majority of citations are yourself, it means everyone else thinks you're insane.

So you, dear reader, having never had to write a PhD thesis where you had to defend the sources you chose, would just see that this woman is a professor and has a PhD and say, "This must be true!" Except it's not. Articles do things like say, "Cows emit methane, and cows that eat grass take longer to bring to market, so more methane comes out!"

Except that cows that eat grass often emit less methane, cause there is less weird stuff in the grass (as the information earlier on in the article points out). So pretty much they take one true thing (cows produce methane) and then ignore the rest of the facts to lie about the ultimate maths.

I call BS.

In Closing

This post has been all over the place, and it over 1000 words. Pretty much, grazing cows are far better than feedlot cows for the environment. Grazing pigs just use less water, which is useful in California. Good luck finding real information on any of this, though.

China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:


China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Eating Beef and Mutton Causes 15% of Climate Change Emissions


In what may be the worst article I ever read (not in terms of scientific quality, but in terms of making me a sad clown), eating certain types of meat causes 15% of climate change. Unfortunately, you, reader, do not have access to the full article, so I will pull some of the quotes from it.

"Worldwide, the livestock sector is responsible for approximately 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions3 (7.1 of 49 Gt CO2e yr−1)." 5.7Gt of this is from ruminants, animals that have more than one stomach and chew their cud (about 4.6Gt from cows, .6Gt from buffalo, and .5Gt from sheep and goats). 1.4Gt are from monogastric, ie single stomached, animals: pigs, chicken.

Why do ruminants produce so much? Cause they belch methane. On a 20 year timescale Methane is 75 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. And why is this? We've discussed this before, but it is worth revisiting.

The Science of Heat-Trapping Gases (skip this part if you don't like science)

(Any atmospheric chemists reading this: I apologizes for bastardizing the science a little bit, but this is meant for a general audience, so I will gloss over details and simplify some concepts)

Electromagnetic Spectrum! (source)

First, let's revisit the idea of radiance. Everything gives off light. It's not light like we normally consider it, as in what we can see. Instead it is all sorts of light we can't see, either. Like infrared, UV, and even x-rays. You've heard of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the picture above. Visible light is only a tiny fraction of it.

So. Again, everything gives off light. The wavelengths of light an object gives off is based on its surface temperature. Humans give off a characteristic light at around 35C, cause that is roughly our body temperature. This is just a small part of the infrared. The Earth absorbs the light that the sun gives off, warms up, and then emits its own light based on surface temperature. And this light it emits? It is heat. It is the planet/sun/person losing its heat energy.

And that light it gives off is in the range shown in the picture below.

Image from UCAR. Look at CO2, and then look at the region around 8.

The image above tells the whole story. Consider the drop in the line to be absorption %. In other words, a sharp dip in the line indicates that compound is re-absorbing the light that Earth gives off, trapping it in the atmosphere. If you look at the CO2 band between 4 and 5, and then the higher CO2 band, you see that it pretty much is absorbs all the light. If you look around 8, where methane absorbs, you see that it is pretty much wide open. So every bit of increase in methane is fully effective at trapping more heat emitted from Earth.

"But Jason," you say, "If CO2 absorbs pretty much all the light in it's region, how does more CO2 increase how much heat it traps?" Well, my friend, you ask an excellent question. You know the Doppler effect? The one where an ambulance siren sounds differently coming towards you than it does when it goes away? That is because the vehicle is traveling an appreciable % of the speed of sound, so it slightly compresses the sound waves when it comes towards you (the ambulance sort of is trying to keep up with sound waves, so it emits subsequent waves closer to each other) and spreads those waves out when it is moving away from you (the ambulance is kind of trying to move ahead of each sound wave it emits, so a little extra space is between wave peaks). Your ear interprets the pitch of sound based the distance between these wave peaks.

How the heck does this relate to CO2? Well, this doppler effect occurs in light absorption as well, mostly related to effects based on the distribution of temperatures in a set of molecules. There are many different types of effects with light absorption that can act similarly, and they are together referred to as Broadening Effects. They are called this because they smear out the absorption region. So, more CO2 in the atmosphere, more broadening of the light absorption. In other words, CO2 absorption expands out sideways in that picture of light absorption, which is less efficient than expanding directly down, like CH4 does.

Back to the Meat!

CO2 equivalent emissions from various types of meat.  From Ripple, W, et al (2014). Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change.

CO2 equivalent emissions from various types of meat.
From Ripple, W, et al (2014). Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change.

Briefly, ruminants produce a lot of CO2 per kg of meat. The above chart compares them all. Stick with poultry and pork.

Cow alone contribute nearly 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. There are 1.4 billions cows in the world. About 20 million get added per year. That's pretty much a cow for every first-world citizen. Now, I'm a die-hard carnivore, but that sounds like a lot.

Now that I've spent a ton of space on describing methane, let's talk about some other causes of emissions from cows. With 20 million more cows needing places to eat and live per year, there is massive deforestation. Cows also tend to destroy environments, making it difficult to grow stuff there later. In some cases, it rapidly converts land to desert. But watch this video where a guy talks about how managed livestock movements can actually reverse desertification.

Okay, back on point. We apparently eat too much cow. Well, we eat too much in general. I am sure that the people eating too much in general are also eating too much cow.

Scary point: I recently read that the amount of extra food that went into making our world's obese could feed 300 million people for life. In other words. nearly half of world starvation could be completely fixed if a bunch of us weren't overeating. And we'd be a good chunk closer to stopping climate change.

Shorter version: next time some vegan tells you that eating meat causes 15% of climate change, first, agree with them. Then let them know that it is mostly from people over-eating cow, and that since you eat mostly chicken and pork, they should bring their complaints somewhere else.

On a more serious note, I do not like admitting the reality of cow being bad for the environment. I love eating cow. I make smoked meat. But we need to trust the numbers and be impartial towards these things. So I make mostly smoked pulled pork and pork ribs. And I eat a ton of chicken.

thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster