Cows, Commodities, Greenhouse Gases

Cows, Commodities, Greenhouse Gases

Partha Desikan

Wild cats hunting for food would have been indeed very happy when man had not yet learnt to tame some ruminants which later became his cattle wealth. This was because these cattle would have been very easy prey. They were not fleet footed like the deer and required far less expense of muscular energy and tactical skills on the part of the cats hunting them. This very reason of slow movement on the part of bovines would have enabled man to trap them and take them to his own environment where he learnt to tend/rear them. Depending on where populations of early men moved with their cattle they settled for meat and dairy value or only dairy value from the bovines. The cows gave milk and the bulls helped in increasing the bovine population while serving as draught animals.

It is believed that Moses and Aaron moving in the West Asian deserts got a divine direction telling them what animals were clean enough for their followers to kill and eat and which ones were not.

Jews, Christians and Moslems remember these lines from Leviticus:

And the LORD spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.’ The camels which were also available to them were disqualified in the course of the same revelation based on their hooves. And therefore beef became favoured food for the descendants of Abraham. Those among them who found it easier to rear sheep were satisfied with mutton.

The Vedic people on the Saraswati Sindhu banks in ancient India had plenty of cereals and other green stuff to eat and plenty of grass for their cows to feed on. The cows in turn gave them milk which was wholesome food again. They named the cows and bulls aghnyas, meaning not deserving to be killed. This name occurs both in the Rigveda and in the Atharvaveda. Some of them liked meat, but they preferred to kill animals other than the cow. Some of their sacrifices involved animals, but these also became less frequent with time. The development of such a compassionate feeling towards animals eventually blossomed into non-violence becoming an important aspect of new Indic religions that developed in India, and vegetarianism becoming popular among different sects. Such   thoughts also spread among people in neighbouring Asian countries. The use of milk products had come to stay, however. In several modern states in India there is effective ban on the slaughter of cows for any purpose.

In old India, households had cows living with them almost like family members and there was no dairy industry with the object of maximizing production of dairy products. The Gokula over which Sri Krishna presided for many years before accepting his roles in the kingdom of Mathura was thus a colony of many individual cow owners, whose cows were grazed by many Gopala boys among whom Lord Krishna also moved in the same capacity. The cows belonged to the various households as people also did and while they were understood to be assets, they were not treated as commodity.

Let me turn my attention to a grave question troubling the minds of several thinkers in USA on a side effect of large-scale consumption of milk products and beef. The following is an extract from a Newsletter that I received earlier this week from a Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas association of people interested in Earth/Food/Animal/Green Building topics, namely on Monday, October 26, 2009, from the mailing address: “updates” <[email protected]>

But what about cows?  Will Europeans count the greenhouse gases they cause in places like South America from importing beef or only count the greenhouse gas production in Europe? 
BAD News
About Cows


Cows digest their food through enteric fermentation while “chewing their cud.” This emits methane, a greenhouse gas that traps heat 23-25 times “better” than carbon dioxide. The average dairy cow belches out about 100 to 200 liters of methane each day. Cow manure also produces nitrous oxide, which, considered over a 100 year period, has 298 times more impact per unit weight than carbon dioxide. According to an EPA about methane and livestock in the U.S. alone, cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere. 
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases-more than human transportation. A study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles. Dr Andy Thorpe, an economist at the University of Portsmouth, found a herd of 200 cows can produce annual emissions of methane roughly equivalent in energy terms to driving a family car more than 100,000 miles. Cows, which have doubled in population in the last 40 years to an estimated 1.3-to-1.5 billion worldwide, produce one pound of methane for every two pounds of meat that they yield.
But more surprising is fact that grazing, grass-fed cattle emit four to five more methane than corn-fed cattle from factory farms. But factory farms cause tremendous environmental and health problems, as well as producing sick cows and monstrous cruelties. 
The fact is that cows, whether grass-fed or corn-fed, are bad news for this planet. 
That bad news is growing. As Americans eat less meat, others countries, trying to adopt the American lifestyle, eat more meat and dairy products. 
Cows also cause, among many other problems, clearing of rainforests for cattle grazing or planting cattle feed (Brazilian Amazon especially), and then packaging, storing, and  transporting the meat, much of it to America but quite a lot to Europe.
Cows are generally gentle animals. The problem is not cows, of course; the problem is people. If people were not buying beef and dairy, farmers would soon quit raising cattle for profit.
Sources: Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York Times, Guardian, University of Portsmouth, CNN.


Mankind should be able to think of a compromise solution somewhere between leaving cows to look after themselves on the one hand and commodifying and exploiting them greedily to sickening levels on the other. If mankind chooses, that is.

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