Amazon Deforestation Is Falling Under Brazil’s New President — but Is It Too Late?
Climate•7 min read
Cattle farming is the leading driver of deforestation and food-related climate emissions.
Words by Tracy Keeling
The Amazon Rainforest is being cleared of an area the size of a soccer field every minute. Most of this is driven by cattle farming — clearing forest to provide grazing land for cattle and land for growing feed crops.
But what exactly is cattle farming, and why is it bad for the environment?
Cattle farming, simply put, is a form of business aimed at raising cows, bulls, oxen and calves for various purposes, the most prominent being dairy, beef and leather.
Dairy cows are all female because the industry requires them to give birth and produce milk for their babies. That milk is then taken to be marketed for consumption by humans. Cattle farmers specifically breed dairy cows to produce large quantities of milk. In the U.S., the Holstein Friesian and Jersey breeds are usually used on dairy farms.
To keep the production of milk constant, a cow has to continue lactating. This is ensured by impregnating the cow every year via artificial insemination, a method that uses the sperm of bulls considered to be genetically superior to inseminate cows and ensure profitable offspring. The calves hardly taste their mothers’ milk — they are put on a soy milk formula instead. Calves who are capable of future dairy production undergo the same cycle as their mothers, and those who cannot produce dairy are put to use in other industries.
Beef cattle are bulls and calves raised to be killed for meat. Many of the calves are turned into veal, by being killed at 2 or 3 days old, and sometimes even at just 2 or 3 hours. The rest are raised to be fattened for beef. Just as with dairy cows, beef cattle are selectively bred, to help produce and sell different commodities, such as leaner meats. Most beef cattle in the U.S. are eventually put in enclosures in feedlots before slaughter, where they survive in unsanitary conditions, while only a small percentage are given continuous access to pasture.
Often thought of as a byproduct of the dairy and meat industries, leather has in fact become one of the main sources of profit for cattle farmers. Leather is the skin of a cow, bull or calf. It is usually young calves that are killed, for their soft and unmarked skin.
Cattle farms are often known as either beef farms or dairy farms, depending on the purpose for which the cows are being raised. The majority of cows are also raised in large, intensive farms that are classed by the Environmental Protection Agency as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, and which are commonly called factory farms.
How cattle farms are maintained differs depending on what kind of cattle farm it is. Dairy farms require milking equipment, for example, while the farms that buy mature beef cows to ready them for slaughter require feedlots where cattle are fed grains to fatten them up. Some important aspects of running and maintaining a cattle farm include handling, grazing, housing, fly control and reproduction.
Cows need to be handled in a way that prevents stress or injury, and that ensures their overall well-being. But quite the opposite tends to be the case in cattle farms. Cows are often stationed on concrete floors for a long period, damaging their hooves and causing sore joints. Many dairy cows are milked using machines, which among other things cause mastitis, leading to pus in milk. Cattle handling also involves literally breaking up families, by separating lactating cows from their babies, so that the milk can be used for dairy and the babies can be used as meat.
Cattle farming needs ample pasture space for grazing. After a few months, calves destined to be sold for their meat then have to move to a feedlot to be fattened. The problem with the feed given to cattle is that their diet is mostly focused on producing more milk or better meat, without much concern for how good the diet is for the cattle themselves. Sometimes, instead of being transferred to feedlots, cattle are allowed to feed on mostly grass and are labeled as “grass-fed” cattle.
A lot of the time cattle are not given access to pasture for grazing for very long. It is common for certain meat and dairy items to have a specific “pasture-raised, free-range” label on them to verify that cattle did indeed get some access to pasture, yet these terms don’t have legal backing when applied to cattle.
Housing for cattle needs to fulfill many requirements, including cleanliness, provision of personal space and proper ventilation. But in reality, the cattle industry hardly meets these needs. Living a life of confinement, dairy cattle are kept in unsanitary conditions amidst their own feces and are forced to inhale toxic fumes. Living with little personal space, many of these cows spend much of their time rooted to one spot, with just one imposed purpose — to be put to use for humans.
Seemingly harmless, flies carry a lot of diseases that cattle are susceptible to. Given the unclean housing conditions and crowding in cattle farms, fly numbers increase. Farmers often use pesticides and insecticides to deal with the problem, but that causes more problems than it solves. Firstly, surroundings become contaminated with the chemicals used in pesticides. This includes the air and the food for cattle, which invariably leads to milk contamination and harm to cattle health. Cattle farms become hotspots for bioaccumulation of substances within animals, which ensures that these problems persist for a long time.
Reproduction ensures a steady supply of milk and calves for leather and veal. However, if left to exercise their own will, cows will rarely become pregnant every year, given the mental and physical toll that pregnancy takes on their bodies. Hence cattle farm management involves artificial insemination to ensure that the cow gets pregnant every year and passes on good genes, ensuring a continuous supply of milk, meat and other products for humans.
Over time, repeatedly giving birth leads to ruptures of the uterus and weakening of cows’ bodies far ahead of the usual timescale. After 5 to 6 years of continuously giving birth, they are sent to be slaughtered. In some parts of India cattle slaughter has been recently banned, and dairy cows are instead left on the streets, where they may eventually die from eating plastic.
Incomes differ across farms, and depend on various factors, including their size, and how much farmers are willing to compromise on animal welfare to boost their profits. Given the fact that demand for one of the main products of cattle farming — dairy — is plummeting in the U.S., farmers have been facing losses and dumping milk in rivers and fields. There is not much clear data on how much cattle farmers make per cow, but the median annual salary for U.S. farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers in 2021 was $73,060, a figure that conceals a huge amount of variation between different kinds of farmer and farm manager. Farm earnings are also changing with consumption patterns worldwide, as people are demanding more ethical choices for food and clothing.
Cattle farming is often romanticized as something essential for certain landscapes but the facts suggest otherwise. Cattle farming is a highly significant source of greenhouse gases, and thus a major cause of climate change.
Cattle farming has also often displaced local communities who have ensured more regenerative and balanced uses of land in their environments. It causes air and water pollution. The industry also treats living beings as commodities and shows little consideration for their welfare. Finally, cattle farming depends on clearing the land of forests, which is the habitat of many animals, thus threatening biodiversity.
A cow produces anywhere from 12 kilograms of manure per day for a baby cow to 62 kilograms per day and up for dairy cows. Cattle waste contains a lot of nitrogen, which can contaminate water sources around farms over time. Nitrate contamination from a cattle farm infiltrated most of the wells in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin in just four years, forcing many people to relocate.
The easiest way for cattle farms to ensure the good health of animals is by feeding them antibiotics. However, this has a detrimental impact on the environment. The antibiotics may boost methane production in cattle, meaning the release of more of the powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Antibiotic overuse has a more obviously devastating unintended consequence for humans too, leading to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
At the very least, “humane” behavior implies that one shows compassion and respect for the individuality and existence of another being. This implies that if someone does not consent to their bodies being used to earn profits in the market, then that choice should be respected. We are one among a billion species that together are important for the planet to thrive.
However, nothing that happens on a cattle farm matches this description of being humane. Right from birth, cattle are segregated according to their commercial use. The lactating cows are assigned to spend the rest of their lives being hooked up to machines that suck out their milk, the calves are either bred to become milk producers or are killed for meat, leather and other purposes, while bulls are bred to extract their semen or fattened up for beef.
Throughout this process, the calves get little to no access to the milk meant for them. Cattle born with horns are dehorned, which is a painful process that targets many nerve endings. They are sometimes kicked and beaten.
Global warming is one of the clearest aspects of climate change. Temperatures rise as greenhouse gas emissions increase and heat is trapped in the atmosphere. Methane and nitrous oxide are among the most powerful greenhouse gases over a period of decades, and animal agriculture is a leading source of these emissions. Beef and dairy cattle, in particular, are responsible for the release of these gases because of enteric fermentation during digestion. This means that the process that cattle undergo to break their food into soluble components builds up a lot of methane.
Grass-fed cattle are often considered to be a sustainable solution for global warming. However, not only do they release emissions, but they also use a lot of land and run the risk of overgrazing.
The world has 1.49 billion cattle being used to produce different commodities. From these cattle, humans take 841.84 million tonnes of milk per year, and 71.61 million tonnes of beef. Beef, soy, and palm oil account for 60 percent of tropical deforestation. Soy production is not primarily driven by plant-based milk, but beef and dairy production, since soy forms a major component of cattle feed.
When we look at land use, agriculture takes up almost half of the world’s habitable land, and 77 percent of this land is not even being used to grow crops for human consumption, but the grazing and feed of farmed animals, including cattle.
The appeal of keeping cattle in dreamy meadows and earning a profit from them may motivate people to start a cattle farm, but the cost to animal welfare, the environment and farmers is too great to consider the business sustainable. Instead, one might look at booming opportunities in plant-based farming, which does not require as much land and has a dramatically lower impact on the climate. Cattle farming is not viable in the long run, and with the ethical and genuinely sustainable options available, it is time to shift to those options for good.
Each of us can also adopt an ethical approach to life and go vegan. We all also need to understand that as consumers we can change not only what we demand but how much we demand. With limited resources and billions of people, it makes sense to reduce our consumption and embrace minimalist living.
Climate•7 min read
Diet•6 min read