Fighting Global Warming Requires Changes In How Cows Are Fed Stopping climate change won't just mean a halt to burning coal and gasoline. It will mean an end to cutting forests and mining the soil to grow more food. Fortunately, it is possible.
NPR logo

Fighting Global Warming Requires Changes In How Cows Are Fed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/702908768/702908769" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Fighting Global Warming Requires Changes In How Cows Are Fed

Fighting Global Warming Requires Changes In How Cows Are Fed

Fighting Global Warming Requires Changes In How Cows Are Fed

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/702908768/702908769" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Stopping climate change won't just mean a halt to burning coal and gasoline. It will mean an end to cutting forests and mining the soil to grow more food. Fortunately, it is possible.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, in a way, we've been bringing you stories from the future, describing a world in which we have actually stopped climate change. And today we turn to food. In a zero-carbon world, your dinner plate may not look all that different, but some big changes have to happen down on the farm. NPR's Dan Charles traveled to South America to see how those changes might happen.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: A scientist named Jacobo Arango was traveling in a forested part of his country, Colombia, when he ran into a big cause of global warming. He couldn't see it, but he could hear it.

JACOBO ARANGO: You could hear the chainsaw cutting the forest. And the locals telling us that this is nothing unusual for them, that they were hearing that every day.

CHARLES: And they all knew what would happen next. After land clearing, comes cattle grazing - a version of cattle grazing that's careless and destructive. And Tim Searchinger from the World Resources Institute says it's incredibly common.

TIM SEARCHINGER: Grazing land is about two-thirds of all the world's agricultural land, and about a third of that came right out of clearing forests.

CHARLES: This is a climate disaster. First, because cutting trees and tearing up soil releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and then cattle release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as they digest grass and leaves. There are greenhouse emissions from other kinds of farming, too - from plowing and from fertilizer. Add it all up, and growing food accounts for a quarter of the entire climate change problem. It could grow, too, because billions of people around the world are getting richer. They want to eat beef, too.

SEARCHINGER: There is no solution to climate change that doesn't dramatically reduce the land use demands and greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture.

CHARLES: Searchinger and his colleagues have laid out a roadmap for how to do this. It includes lots of things - less food wasted, ways to capture those fertilizer emissions - but maybe the biggest piece of the solution? Jacobo Arango wants to show it to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

CHARLES: Arango works at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, and he's brought me to a farm in the Patia Valley, not far from the country's Pacific coast. This is cattle-grazing land - wide, grassy pastures lined by trees.

NOHELY ANGULO MOSQUERA: (Speaking Spanish, whistling).

CHARLES: Nohely Angulo Mosquera is calling his cows, moving them to a new pasture. And this new pasture is a bovine feast. The grass is up to my waist. This is not the ordinary grass that grows wild here. These are varieties that were specifically bred and selected to be top-quality cattle feed.

ANGULO MOSQUERA: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: Angulo Mosquera, the farmer, says these grasses grow so fast and they're so nutritious he can keep four or even six cows on the land that used to support just one. He does have to manage the cows more carefully, moving them every few weeks to new pastures when the grass is ready. But it's worth it.

ANGULO MOSQUERA: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: More milk, more meat, he says. He doesn't mention it, but it's true - these cows are growing so much faster. They aren't releasing nearly as much methane per pound of milk or meat. We are looking at an essential part of a world without climate change. So researcher Jacobo Arango and I are just going to pretend it's here. The year is 2050, and global warming is ending. The same way we stopped mining coal to generate electricity, we've stopped mining the soil to grow food.

ARANGO: It is different now in 2050.

CHARLES: And in this zero-carbon world, this is what cattle grazing looks like all over the tropics. Farmers aren't just letting cows wander around and find something mediocre to eat anymore. They're treating their pastures like a valuable crop.

ARANGO: This was critical, to change the mindset of cattle growers.

CHARLES: So greenhouse emissions are way down, production is way up, and clearing the rainforest has stopped.

ARANGO: There is no need to go to cut the Amazon, for example, to do livestock production.

CHARLES: And there's one other thing that saved the forests. Tim Searchinger at the World Resources Institute says Americans are eating a lot less beef now in 2050, half what we used to.

SEARCHINGER: That's a really, really big deal.

CHARLES: You now see alternatives to beef and dairy products everywhere you travel in the U.S. - half-mushroom burgers in fast food chains, falafels in train stations, non-dairy cheese on pizzas. People who stop at these places don't really think about the big global impact of all this, but it has been an amazing shift. There are almost 10 billion people in the world now in 2050. People are eating better, yet the Amazon is still there. It has not been sacrificed to grow food. In fact, in parts of North and South America, even on that farm we visited in Colombia, more trees are growing. We're putting carbon back in the soil. Dan Charles, NPR News.

GREENE: Our climate series was edited by Geoff Brumfiel, and it was produced by Danny Hajek.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.