Goodbye Cows: is a world without livestock the solution?

The total elimination of livestock farming is a triumph for animal rights fanatics and some urban environmentalists. But is it the solution to all our problems? Are the biggest polluters on the planet not the industries, nor the fossil fuels, but the cows? Currently, cows seem to be public enemy number one in the media, the only cause of climate change.

In the exciting film “Goodbye Cows“, Prof. Frédéric Leroy from the Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology Group of the University of Brussels sheds light on one of the most complex and controversial issues that we face. “Today, cows are seen as the most destructive animals for the planet”, – Prof. Leroy begins in his interview – “They emit greenhouse gases, they use a lot of soil and a lot of water, and they compete with us for food. This misinformation is influencing policy choices at high levels. Just think of the EAT-Lancet diet, proposed as the best diet for human and planet health. It is a semi-vegetarian diet with negligible quantities of meat, insufficient to guarantee the coverage of needs. Even taxes on meat and the exclusion of meat from school menus, canteens or public events have been proposed, inviting toward a completely vegetarian menu. But if we implement this diet worldwide, it will be a disaster“.

We are facing purely economic interests, trying to replace animal proteins with plant proteins from ultra-processed artificial foods. Some big investors fund this activity, like lab-grown meat cultivated in a laboratory or plant-based fake meat. As Fernando Estellés from the Polytechnic University of Valencia explains, these investors are trying to change our way of thinking, our way of life and influence us on a social, political and legislative level.

Animal welfare and sustainability are used as arguments, blaming our meat consumption for destroying the planet and our health. “It must be taken into account that methane emitted by animals and CO2 from fossil fuels do not have the same effect” – Fernando Estellés explains – “Methane from animals remains in the atmosphere for ten years. So, it warms the planet, but after ten years, it disappears. It is then part of the CO2 that plants absorb with photosynthesis. Animals eat plants, so Methane is part of a very short biogenic cycle. Instead, we extract new carbon from fossil fuels that remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years, continuing to warm the planet. So, the comparison does not stand, as Methane from animals is recycled in 10 years, while CO2 from fossil fuels continues to warm for hundreds of years”.

“If we eliminate cattle, we lose a very ancient system of co-evolution between animals and humans”, – Leroy continues – “If we remove all the cows, what will happen to the grasslands? What will happen to all ecosystems? Eliminating livestock is a fanatical and unrealistic idea that has destructive effects”. An example is the Dehesa, a multifunctional, agrosilvopastoral system and cultural landscape of southern and central Spain and southern Portugal, which can absorb carbon from the very high environment.

If we eliminate animals, we lose this ability. So, the film shows a hypothetical scenario of a world without animals in 2036, with land abandonment and rural depopulation. “If 115,000 livestock families disappear, the rural environment will be abandoned, with a demographic decline in those areas. Most meat production is concentrated in marginal areas of medium-high mountains, which are already problematic for rural depopulation,” – says Edelmiro López of the University of Santiago de Compostela, explaining the importance of livestock in enhancing marginal lands, maintaining the landscape, avoiding hydrogeological instability and ensuring a livelihood for rural families. With the loss of livestock, we lose part of our culture, history, and traditions. “If animals do not graze, grazing lands are transformed into forests, becoming woodier and shrubbier. This subjects (the forests) to a greater risk of fires,” – Sonia Roig of the Complutense University of Madrid points out – “To maintain a good state of the territory, the pasture and the care of the farmers are necessary. But the number of cattle we have today is not enough to keep all our territories of interest”.

The film also addresses the issue of the loss of the Amazon Forest for the soybean cultivation for animals, specifying in the first instance that more than 80% of what a cow eats is entirely inedible to us. There is, therefore, no competition for food because cows eat fodder, hay, grass and by-products rich in cellulose that is indigestible to us, transforming them into animal source products with high nutritional value. It is, therefore, not the cows that feed the fires for soy crops.

On the contrary, livestock maintains the land and reduces the risk of forest fires. Maria Diago, an environmental expert, spoke about the trend of veggie foods such as tofu and seitan favouring industrial processes, destroying forests and natural ecosystems. In her work, she analyzed 15 sustainability indicators specific to the gastronomy sector, covering the actual consumption of natural resources. Water consumption is one of the most critical issues, so much so that many accusations have been made about meat production being the most significant user of water.

But even here, the much-reported 15,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of meat is fake news, but it’s difficult to forget. “When we talk about litres of water to produce meat, we must not think about the water drunk by cows, which is relatively residual”, – Fernando Estellés continues – “We have three types of water, green, blue and grey water. The green water represents rainwater. Blue water is the one we extract from the aquifers, and it is the most dangerous because we affect the water reserves. Gray water is what I contaminate with my activities. In livestock farming, 90% of the water used is green, which returns into the water cycle with no real impact on the environment and ecosystem”.

So, with rural abandonment, biodiversity loss, fires and climate change. Are cows the enemies of the planet? Are industrial ultra-processed plant-based foods our saviours?

Lierre Keith, an American writer and activist, tells of her devastating experience with the vegan diet. She became vegan at 16, convinced that it was the healthiest choice for herself and the planet. Instead, she faced several health problems due to this poor diet. “For 20 years, I destroyed my body, so much so that I struggled to stand. I realized that my values framework was correct: ethics, compassion, and sustainability, but a vegan diet was not the solution. I wasn’t saving any animals. This is just a fairy tale, and I didn’t know the real cost that the planet was paying for my plant-based diet. Those benefiting from it were only the big multinationals producing ultra-processed plant-based foods. There are only six big companies so we can talk about a big monopoly“.

The debate should not be about meat versus chickpeas or peas, but natural meat versus ultra-processed plant-based foods made from 15-20 ingredients. Consuming them is not healthy. “It is thought that we can replace animal source foods such as meat with plant-based foods, but it is pure fantasy“, – Leroy continues – “It’s not an easy process. It’s a reductionist idea. If we read the list of ingredients of plant-based imitations of meat, we can see that it is full of additives, texturizers and so on. Even plant-based does not mean that there are vegetables inside, but only extracts – nothing that resembles a vegetable. Producing these ultra-processed foods consumes a lot of energy and is not an alternative with zero impact or residues compared to livestock farming. They give an image of healthier, more sustainable products, but they aren’t”.

“This trend of producing fake, artificial foods like veggie burgers and fake sausages is worryingly spreading”, Lierre Keith continues – “But we have an ancestral carnivorous instinct, and in this way, we deny our body what it needs. Meat and animal products contain either absent or not bioavailable nutrients in plants. If you want to be vegan, you can do it, but you need supplements, such as omega 3, vitamin A, vitamin B12, heme iron etc… It is so sad because it will never be like eating a real portion of meat or drinking a glass of milk, having some butter or grass-fed cheese“.

If we want to solve the problems of sustainability and climate change, we must let the ruminants do their job. Because what they do is preserve the soil, seize the carbon, and fertilize the lands. We do not need a giant vacuum cleaner that removes all the atmospheric gas emissions. All we need are ruminants and grass. The hope is that the world will return to life. And before that, to common sense.