Sorry, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but “farting cows” aren’t the problem

The proposed language in the Green New Deal got this wrong. Will it be corrected?

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the legislator behind the Green New Deal, wants to take away our hamburgers. At least, that’s what a vocal group of Republican politicians would have you believe.

The congresswoman’s vision for environmental reform, they say, amounts to a de facto ban on beef. Rather than engaging the public on the finer points of the non-binding resolution, which she co-introduced with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey on February 7, these critics are appealing to our stomachs, and conjuring an America under gustatory austerity, a nation where we can’t eat what we want.

These claims are political theater. And yet, in recent weeks, AOC has backed down from an inflammatory talking point about cow farts, and their role in climate change. Now, an outspoken member of the scientific community says he had an impact behind the scenes, and the politician’s public stance on ruminant flatulence has evolved out of deference to the facts.   

How did we get here?

It started with the release of a fact sheet outlining the much-debated resolution’s key points. Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez’s office released the document, her office said it was a draft published by mistake, and retracted it. By then, she was already getting dragged for some of its proposals. That very public resistance has only increased over the last month.

If you don’t hear about cow farts anymore from AOC, it may not be because of GOP criticism.
Some of the fact sheet’s most controversial language, it turned out, wasn’t about planet-warming carbon dioxide—the kind released when fossil fuels like gasoline, coal, and oil are burned—but methane, specifically the kind that comes from animal digestion. The since-deleted document proposed a goal of taking America carbon-neutral in ten years, noting that a more aggressive timeline isn’t possible because “we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”

That particular line set off a firestorm from the right. President Trump interpreted it to mean that Americans wouldn’t be able to “own cows anymore.” Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said it meant goodbye “to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches.” Then AOC went on TV and defended it.

As it turns out, neither side was accurate. Republicans are likely to continue linking Green New Deal priorities to a supposed hamburger ban. But if you don’t hear about cow farts anymore from AOC, it may not be because of GOP criticism. Frank Mitloehner, an animal scientist and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, insists cattle flatulence isn’t the problem it’s made out to be, and says he helped set the record straight.

Here’s what seems to have happened. On February 4, shortly before Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, she was speaking to school children in Queens, New York. When one asked how they could “combat” climate change, Ocasio-Cortez offered two practical options—stop using disposable razors, and skip meat and dairy for one meal.

Mitloehner tweeted at her.

“Dear @AOC: we all try to help the climate,” he wrote. “However, the two options you offered have low impacts compared to the 800lb gorilla, which is to reduce fossil fuel use. About ⅔ of greenhouse gas emissions in the US stem from transport and energy prod&use. Meat/milk = 4 % of total GHG,” referring to findings in a recent EPA report.

“I give her team a lot of credit for reaching out.”
Mitloehner says his tweet got the attention of the think tank that advises Ocasio-Cortez on climate policy. Last month, he says, he was contacted by Anna Scanlon, who runs outreach at New Consensus, a policy group that helped write the Green New Deal for the congresswoman’s office.

Why were they reaching out to him? Because the non-binding resolution calls for removing as many greenhouse gas emissions from the farm sector, which represent 9 percent of those total emissions in America, “as is technologically feasible.” Mitloehner, who studies how cattle emissions contribute to air quality, is well-liked by the meat industry, and has a knack for disarming fervent right-wingers, would seem a good source of information.

“I give her team a lot of credit for reaching out,” Mitloehner says. “If we really are serious about making a difference in carbon emissions, you cannot do this without agriculture involved.”

He says he was dismayed to see Ocasio-Cortez blaming “cow farts” for greenhouse gas emissions. Technically, she’s right: As cattle digest food, they release nitrous oxide and ammonia in their manure, gases that have planet-warming potential. But the more abundant greenhouse gas, methane, comes out mostly through their burps, which makes them a more significant driver of climate change. None of this is funny to Mitloehner, by the way, whose research involves putting cows in air-tight tents to measure the content of their “eruptions.”

Mitloehner claims that after his tweet, Ocasio-Cortez removed “all mentions” of cow farts from social media. I couldn’t find any such posts from her about said cows, and neither the congresswoman’s office, nor New Consensus, returned requests for comment. It is true, however, that the much-maligned fact sheet, and the line about “farting cows,” has disappeared. Briefly, its language was changed to “emissions from cows,” but that too was deleted. Mitloehner says Ocasio-Cortez’s policy team told him the reference was “pretty much a mistake” that was quickly remedied.

“Farting cows,” Mitloehner says, trivializes what’s otherwise a very serious issue

“I’m not saying that it was me who caused that,” he says. “But if it wasn’t me, then it was a coincidence that happened right after my communication with them.”

Specificity is important, Mitloehner insists. Being able to tell our farts from our burps, and our burps from our fossil fuels, is the first step to mitigating the effects from all of them. And wrapping that all up in “farting cows,” he says, trivializes what’s otherwise a very serious issue.

Other animal scientists, including Jason Rowntree, a forage expert at Michigan State University, share that point of view. He says the fixation around cow farts is “juvenile,” and “dumbs down the conversation from a scientific perspective.” He’s also of the perspective that cattle grazing has environmental benefits which are overshadowed by the issue of methane emissions.

“In the United States, when you look at different sources of methane, a much greater amount is actually coming from industries other than agriculture,” he says. “But because everything’s on the table, people look at every emission. And that’s how the cattle component has gotten in the crosshairs, so to speak.”

Beyond that discussion of how, exactly, enteric emissions work, Mitloehner hardly considers the Green New Deal a revolution, or a moonshot. There’s already a version of it in California—a scoping plan that requires, among other changes, a 40-percent reduction of methane and soot by 2030. He disagrees with it, methodologically, saying he’s not convinced that emissions are being adequately measured today, and therefore, that it’s premature to establish targets. But philosophically, he’s on board. Reducing “short-lived” gasses, such as methane, has an immediate effects on global temperature.

If all Americans adopted vegan diets, it would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2.6 percent.
In California, dealing with those gasses as they’re belched by cattle, and to a lesser degree, coming out the other end—mostly in the form of their manure—has been a challenge. To push larger-scale change, Mitloehner says, he doesn’t suggest shrinking the industry. Rather he wants to see technological solutions implemented, like experimental feed additives that reduce methane emissions, and anaerobic digesters, which transform manure into biogas. In Germany, there are 9,000 such digesters. California, by contrast, has “maybe two dozen.”

“Obviously, Germany has a different public policy around renewable energy,” he says.

Mitloehner complimented Ocasio-Cortez’s policy team for being engaged during a half-hour conversation about those solutions, and for having evident knowledge of some of those technological fixes, like seaweed being fed to cows to reduce methane content. That doesn’t mean, however, that they saw eye-to-eye on everything. When it comes to eating less red meat, for example, Mitloehner does concede that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But only by a very small amount. A recent study, for example, showed that if the United States completely shifted away from animal farming, and all Americans went on a vegan diet, the move would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2.6 percent.

As crazy it sounded, I still had to ask him. Were the critics right? Were they onto something? Based on his conversation with the policy team, did he really think AOC was coming to take away your hamburgers?

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Mitloehner says. “I’ve talked to the people she works with. And they were very reasonable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a study modeled the environmental impact of 20 million Americans going on a vegan diet. In fact, it modeled the impact of all Americans on the diet. We regret the error.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.