5 min read

Forget About Fossil Fuels: Cows Are The New Coal

With farms like these, why focus on fossil fuels?

Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.

The Food Movement's defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming's future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement's idealized future there's no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.

This goal is appropriately righteous-eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture-and it's one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position-a much more problematic one-that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.

Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like "asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic"-forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.

Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer-you and me-while the other falls on the producer-faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we'll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It's a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.

Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product-namely, they say they are "sequestering carbon"-is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef-they say, alas, that they are "sequestering carbon." But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?