Are ruminants evil?

Ever since we started to understand the impact we are having on our Planet, many reasons have come to light. Some seemed more obvious than others, but what struck me most at the beginning was the impact that ruminants have on the environment. Are they evil? Let’s find out, as always, together.

Ruminants are mammals that feed mainly on vegetation (wild grass and similar). They comprehend a few hundred different species, both wild and domestic. The reason why we called them so is that their digestive system requires them to chew multiple times. This happens because their stomach is not able to break down at once all the food they eat, and so they belch out some of it and then chew it again and again. This process of continuous chewing of food is called rumination, hence the name ruminants.

Ruminants include a wide range of animals, the most popular being cattle, sheep and goats. Only these animals provide many services to their own bosses, humans: they are source of food, source of dairy products, clothing (at least they used to be), they were used in agriculture (even though our favourite have always been donkeys and mules). Some wild species of ruminants made us somehow soft to them, or probably they were too hard to hunt and kill, and so we let them be free, or captured and kept as hostages in our zoos: examples are giraffes and gazelles (there are some tribal communities in Sub-Saharan Africa who still hunt them, but that wouldn’t make this post mainstream according to the way of thinking “We’re right, they’re wrong”, and so I’ll leave it to each one of you to find out more about them).

Coming back to where we started, are ruminants evil? In particular, are they bad for the environment?

They are, but whose fault is? In case you are wondering, it’s our, mine and yours.

The main reasons why ruminants are not eco-friendly are the following: 

  • When they ruminate they belch out methane.
  • We feed them on soya.
  • The impact they have on the soil they graze on.

Methane

In another post, we talked about the impact of methane produced by leftovers of food from a corporate event. In that story, we focused on the concept of embedded emissions, which applies to this one as well.

Methane is an embedded emission of ruminants. When they chew, they belch out the cud, which is the part of food their stomach didn’t process yet, and methane. In case you didn’t know, methane is a greenhouse gas which has a much higher impact of more common ones, such as CO2 (the ratio is 28:1, making methane 28 times more effective than CO2 in the same quantity).

There are countless studies that will show you the impact of methane emissions produced by ruminant livestock. I would like to propose one made by Chang, J., Peng, S., Ciais, P. et al. Revisiting enteric methane emissions from domestic ruminants and their CH4. Nat Commun 10, 3420 (2019), available here.

“Livestock production is the largest anthropogenic source in the global methane budget. Enteric fermentation from ruminants dominates this source and accounts for the emission of 87–97 Tg CH4 yr−1 during 2000–2009. Livestock manure management has a smaller contribution. Cattle, buffaloes, goats, and sheep are the main ruminant livestock types emitting CH4 and altogether represent 96% of the global enteric fermentation source”

Soya

Another embedded emission of ruminants is what they feed on. In natural circumstances, they would feed on grass. However intensive livestock, especially of cattle, feed the animals on soya, in order to make them grow more and faster.

Soya itself wouldn’t be a problem but, as mentioned in another post, the issue is that in order to meet the global demand of soya needed (which is 7% for human consumption and 70% for livestock feeding) we have to increase the amount of land intended for soya production by clearing forests.
The results are stunning: according to WWF, even though the production is ongoing a process to try to reduce deforestation and direct emission of soybean cultivation, the impact is still “greater than sustainable”.

Soil

Here we face a two-sided coin. On one side academics have observed that grazing provide benefits to certain ecosystems because the cattle help fields getting ploughed. However, the main view about the subjects is that ruminants, in such a high number, are contributing to the depletion of the fields they graze on, endangering different species and contributing to biodiversity loss.

Honestly, who cares about them right?

Unfortunately, nobody does but the problem is that often certain species that we don’t care about, such a small and sleazy insects, play a vital role in maintaining an ecosystem alive, either by providing a source of protein/food for bigger animals and by removing hostile species from the soil, just to name a few.

On top of that, ruminants deplete vegetation, contributing to the soil erosion on what they graze on. Often, ruminants are seen on hills or mountainsides. The effect they have after few years of grazing in big heirs is devastating: not only they are likely to consume the grass, but by doing so they contribute also in making that mountain slope more dangerous for us (less tress = more avalanche).

How can we make things better? I think the western world should be a role model. Countries such as China are only recently embracing our culture of burgers and fast food, so after having suffered famine for many decades, I would feel uneasy in pointing my fingers towards them. I believe there should be a global effort in trying to reduce the ruminants products (in every form) that we consume daily.

What can we do?

What can we do in our everyday life? I am no one to give suggestions to other people, but I’ll just share what I personally do just to give you some ideas.

  1. Rotate cheeses. I love cheese, but I realised that my shopping habits weren’t sustainable because I was always buying the same cheeses in my weekly shop in the same quantities. One day, opening my fridge, I realised that, even though they are all delicious, I probably didn’t need to have Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Brie, Cottage cheese and Parmesan at the same time (it was really hard to give up on some of them, but I survived).
  2. Ditch fast food. It is a simple but effective rule. If you care about yourself, try to reduce to the minimum visiting your local McDonald’s. I found it quite effective to eat in fast food takeaways only when I get drunk because I wouldn’t be able to cook otherwise. If you realise that even in that case you are still over-visiting fast-food restaurants, then you might have an issue with alcohol and that is something you should think about.
  3. Eat less meat. Once again, I love meat. I am by no means even close in being a vegetarian. But, if you can, try to avoid eating ruminants (lamb, beef) on a daily base choosing instead pork or chicken. Also, make sure the meat you buy doesn’t come from intensive livestock, otherwise, as it is often the case, you would try to solve a problem by creating another one.

Conclusion

In the end, do not get sad. It is our lifestyle that is carbon-hungry, you are simply following the life you were taught to live. Maybe, it has come the time that we reorganize ourselves and pass onto future generations new ways of living, some that would make us enjoy life at his full while not depleting the natural environment. Also, this change should come soon: we are not likely into establishing a colony on another planet before depleting the one we live on, so less Star Wars and more empathy.

Do you have any suggestions for ditching takeaways when you’re drunk? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!

3 thoughts on “Are ruminants evil?

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