Climate Science Voyage of Discovery. V. The Satellite Gaze and Grazing Animals

We’ve seen before that “where you drop the pin” (where you start) or at what scale you choose to examine a problem can lead to fundamentally different conclusions. In some cases, there seems to be no formal institution for the type of communication between people on the land, and people modeling the land. We might call this the “satellite gaze” after the idea of the “imperial gaze.”

Imperial gaze, in which the observed find themselves defined in terms of the privileged observer’s own set of value-preferences.[8] From the perspective of the colonised, the imperial gaze infantilizes and trivializes what it falls upon,[9] asserting its command and ordering function as it does so.

So let’s look at beef production, and the study that the chart above was based on. The authors are from Oxford, and published in Science. According to Our World in Data, in this study, the authors looked at data across more than 38,000 commercial farms in 119 countries. If you look at the study itself, (and the errata) the modeling is mind-bogglingly complex.

Science has a section for e-letters. Ilse Kohler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development wrote:

This article, both in its database and its conclusions, totally ignores the vital role of livestock for the life and livelihoods of the people living in the non-arable parts of the world. Without livestock large parts of the world wold become uninhabitable. Please see
In addition, one wonders about the usefulness of “land use” as indicator for judging the environmental impact of a food production strategy. Applying this indicator to livestock production would give preference to intensive and factory animal farming over extensive herding.

When this graph was posted on Twitter, I and a fellow from Sasketchewan and a woman from Ireland pointed out that some people raise animals because (1) people can’t raise anything else, or (2) in the case of Sasketchewan, the prairie was plowed for wheat, canola and lentil monocrops, which are arguably worse for biodiversity. I pointed out that there is no land conversion associated with beef in the prairies and the answer was that “if you look overall at beef, you have to account for the env cost of land converted to corn/beef.” My point being that consumers don’t have to look overall at beef, they only have to look at the beef that they’re buying. Who decided that we needed to make a purchasing judgment call based on a global average, and call it “science”? You can follow the Twitter feed here.

A variant of the same convo occurred in the letter section of New Scientist this month:

You might think that as a livestock farmer I would resent vegans claiming that my way of life is unethical, and you would be right. You quote Michael Clark saying that eating animals fed on plants must be less efficient than people eating plants. This ignores the fact that many herbivores can, and do, get much more feed value out of plants than people. What’s more, much of the north and west of the UK and Ireland can only be farmed practically using grazing animals.

The editor writes:

Much of the world’s beef is now produced in intensive feedlots – pens without pasture. This may have a lower carbon footprint than pasture-fed beef. We suspect that most of that is done on fertile land, not rough grazing. It is even harder to find figures for other meats. We note that in the UK, upland sheep production is only marginally viable even with EU subsidies.

There are two more ideas here- that feedlots (feeding animals lots of grain) produces less carbon than feeding animals grass. Again, the editor “suspects” that most of it is done on “fertile land”. And upland sheep production is only “marginally viable” even with subsidies.

At the same time in the US, grassfed beef is undergoing popularity for environmental reasons, and as as of 12/27/2019, USDA FSIS published new guidelines clarifying grass-fed labeling.

As this HuffPost piece says:

Our best bet is to educate ourselves about where our meat (and all our food) is coming from and the practices used to raise it.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Williams told HuffPost, adding that consumers have an incredible effect on the market. “Go to the grocery store and ask for products that are regeneratively produced. Go to restaurants and demand grass-fed meat and dairy. You’ll be amazed at how quickly those businesses will respond.”

A complex question indeed. What does “the science” say? Who produced it, and how relevant is it to our lives and choices?

1 thought on “Climate Science Voyage of Discovery. V. The Satellite Gaze and Grazing Animals”

  1. All this says to me is, “If it’s important to you to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you’d better take a look at your beef consumption.” It’s certainly good to look at the effects of doing that (which was apparently beyond the scope of this graph), including the choice we might be making about which parts of the world we would like to be uninhabitable (as a result of climate change or of mitigating climate change). And in the context of U. S. public lands, it raises the serious question of whether our government should be contributing to beef production there. I agree that that decision should not be based on global data, but maybe forest plan decisions to allow grazing should acknowledge these effects based on local practices. (As examples, the Inyo, Rio Grande, and Helena-Lewis & Clark forest plan revision EISs are silent about livestock carbon emissions.)


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