Before lolcats—long before, actually—there were the Chick-fil-A cows, who took agricultural reform into their own hooves with their orthographically challenged admonitions to “EAT MOR CHIKIN.” And nowadays, hardly a week goes by without some new reminder that, from a climate perspective at least, those cows actually had it right. The latest issue of Scientific American has an article calculating that a pound of beef produces 13 times as many greenhouse-gas emissions as a pound of chicken. And it’s a disparity that’s not going away anytime soon, even if there was a widespread shift from feedlot-raised beef to the grass-fed kind.
That’s because confined feedlot operations, while bad for water quality, animal welfare, and human health, may not be all that much worse than grass-fed beef farms when it comes to greenhouse gases. Sure, it's fossil-fuel intensive to grow and ship all the grain that cows eat in feedlots, but when cows are eating grass, which has more fiber than grain does, they produce more methane per day (via belching, farting, and manure), and they take longer to reach slaughter weight, which gives them more days to spend producing methane. (Figuring out which of these effects predominates is, as you might expect, a matter of some contention.)
Of course, the simplest way to tackle cow-related emissions is to get people to eat less beef. Another possibility is to reduce the amount of lignin—a type of particularly indigestible fiber that causes cows to produce more methane—in the grass that cows eat. A company in Australia has developed a strain of genetically modified low-lignin grass, featured in an article over at Slate on genetically modified crops that could actually benefit the environment. Perhaps the next step will be breeding a reduced-methane cow to accompany what the Slate article calls the “enviropig,” a line of Yorkshire pigs that have been genetically altered to produce less phosphorous in their manure. Or, again, we could just eat less beef. It would make the Chick-fil-A cows happy.