The scapecow

It’s always easy to blame the cows for climate change and to compare cattle to some of the more polluting industries, but isn’t it time to stop making cows the scapegoats for all of our environmental challenges?

In the run-up to the European Parliament’s vote on the Industrial Emissions Directive, which, with the European Parliament’s AGRI Committee opposed, and the ENVI Committee in favour, equates medium-sized cattle farms with polluting industrial factories, the world of eco-animalist ideologies is revving up its engines with petitions and lobbying of MEPs to get a measure ratified in the Chamber that will be seriously damaging to the climate, the environment in general and food security for European citizens. This legislation is the antechamber to the abolition of livestock farming in Europe. Why should the livestock sector pay for the failure to meet the decarbonisation targets of the energy and transport sectors, the real culprits of the climate-changing impacts of fossil fuel use? 

The EU Inventory 2021 informs us that the leading sector in terms of emissions is energy (27% of the EU total), followed by transport (22.5%), industry (22%) and residential consumption (13%), while agriculture ranks fifth with 11%.

However, if the balance from carbon sequestration in rural areas (amounting to 230 million tCO2e) is taken into account, it drops to only 4%. The most important aspect is that, in its desire to force a reduction in the number of cattle farms, the EU does not take into account the already successful reductions in emissions from European livestock farming, which fell by 23% between 1990 and 2020 (from 317 to 245 million tonnes of CO2e), or the reduction in enteric methane (-22%), a gas that is also criticised as highly polluting.

Taking into account not only carbon sequestration but also the new metrics proposed by the Oxford atmospheric physicists and the FAO, which consider methane to be a short-lived gas and therefore not measurable in terms of CO2e (CO2 is a long-lived gas), EU livestock farming (mainly cattle farming), by reducing methane emissions, rather than warming the atmosphere actually contributed to cooling it by a total of -2.9 billion CO2ew, a reduction comparable to (and adding up to) 1/3 of that achieved by carbon sequestration via soil and vegetation over the same period.

How methane behaves, i.e. its ability to cool the atmosphere in the short term when emissions are reduced, has been flagged to policymakers, who may see a shortcut to climate goals in suppressing ruminant livestock rather than subjecting other sectors to stricter plans to decarbonise from fossil fuels

The forced reduction of livestock farming will not only dangerously reduce the EU’s supply of high-quality proteins to below a strategic reserve level (a reserve is always needed in case of epidemics or physical or commercial wars, as we have already seen), but it will also increase imports of meat and milk from third countries, thus shifting the problem to areas where the efficiency of livestock farming is lower than in Europe, which is among the highest in the world. This would mean the climate impact per unit of imported protein would be higher.

There would also be other collateral damage, including the abandonment of pastures (important CO2 absorbers), the reduction in organic matter available for organic farming and the reduction in the availability of raw materials for artisanal products with protected designations of origin.

There is no need to create such complicated scenarios. By simply observing reality, policymakers will realise that European cattle farming is not a problem for the climate but part of the solution. Why should livestock farming pay for the pollution caused by other industries?

By Professor Giuseppe Pulina, President Emeritus of the Association for Science and Animal Production (ASPA), Full Professor of Ethics and Sustainability of Farming at the Department of Agriculture of the University of Sassari, and President of the Italian Association Carni Sostenibili.