3 scenarios: the possible futures of the cow

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A simulation of the ancient Auroch,
the ancestor of the conventional cow

Extract of the talk given during The Soft Protest, re-chewing & Digest's dinner
in October 2019 at Corridor project space in Amsterdam.

"Following our talk with Corneel van Rijn, we decided to shift our perspective —the farmers’— to now reconsider these questions in relation to public demand and contemporary trends; such as for instance: the will to “eat healthy foods”, being “aware of environmental issues” or wanting to “have an ethic in regards to diet”. From this entry point, we have sketched three hypothetical scenarios of the evolution of dairy and cattle farming in the future. Considering that agriculture and food production touches almost every aspect of our society, this speculative exercise is, of course, debatable and easy to question in practice. We have tried, however, to take a consistent amount of touch points in consideration, in order to sketch the most accurate scenarios possible.

1st scenario

This first scenario does not base itself on an idealistic sudden change of opinion from europeans policy makers, but rather tries to stay quite realistic by betting on the goodwill of a few farmers, which could, by demonstrating the economical relevance of an holistic farming model, (we are thinking here about Corneel’s farm for instance), inspire others to follow them in switching to sustainable farming. In this scenario, the business of these farmers would not be based, primarily, on state subsidies but rather on consumers, who would, first and foremost, purchase their products for environmental reasons.
The dairy and meat produced by these farmers could be marketed for instance as “holistic grazing cows”, CO2 negative cattle” or even “produced by agents of carbon sequestration in the soil”. May these products be sold with the help of a common label or well-rounded marketing narratives, this scenario could, in any case, allow farmers to have a closer relationship to meat and dairy retailers, who would most likely be interested in displaying their good intentions and showcase their collaboration with these “environment farmers”. Putting these environmental qualities aside, the taste and health benefits of “grass fed cattle” could anyhow, be sufficient reasons for some consumers to purchase and consume “grass milk”, “grass cheese” or, and the US show already great results, “grass fed beef”.

2nd scenario

This second scenario is set a bit further in time as it relies, for a part, on the growth of new trees. In relation with the carbon sequestrated by the planting of trees and development of human-designed forests, this second scenario could allow the production of dairy and meat to slowly decrease: from intensive to extensive farming.
Putting the livelihood of the farmer into the equation, the economical loss generated by the reduction of the herd, could be countered by courageous farmers, by transitioning to a silvopasture model of farming, which would rely on transforming his land into a productive food forest. By mainly producing fruits and nuts, these forests would guarantee to the farmers a new source of revenue as well as becoming a rich grazing land for their reduced herd. Of course, having cattle dispose freely of the land would make the work of the dairy farmer much more tricky. To that end, this model relies on technical development and the design of tools such as, for instance, GPS trackers for the cows or transportable milking parlors.
In this scenario, the state would therefore play a part in helping the farmer transition from conventional farming to the silvopasture model by giving him access to subsidies (in the same way it today helps fund the transition to organic farming) as well as pushing technological development and making these technologies available to the transitioning farmers.
Today, products such as cheese, cream or sausages, transformed at the farm by the farmer, have a stronger economical value than raw products such as milk or live animals which can, often, only be sold to large industries, who will charge the farmer for processing. In this second scenario, farmers would rely on cooperative farming (which makes consumers part of the farm) to guarantee the sale of products they would process themselves such as cheese or sausages for instance, as well as, alternative products which would make use, of the nuts and fruits produced by the forest: such as nut milks, or cheeses made out of a combination of nuts and milk.

3rd scenario

This third scenario is set even further in the future and tries to answer a question of ethics, which can sound relatively naive but is, in fact, quite relevant: “why not release the cow and let it run free in the wild?”. This scenario will not actually answer the question from an ethical perpective but actually try to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of it.
To tackle the question, it is interesting to first consider what would be the effects of releasing, today, the current world population of livestock into the wild. It is safe to say that if we were to free, all at once, the 1 billion heads of cattle in the world today: all living wild ecosystems would be impacted, messed up and ultimately destroyed in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, the cow (which has been domesticated for 8000 years) would not only impact its environment but also be incapable of surviving in the wild, as it would would be physically unable to sustain itself, in the winter for instance, when grass is harder to find.
To allow the end of livestock farming and the application of a model in which cows could be freed from human exploitation, we would need to push and radicalize our second scenario and gradually withdraw our exploitation of cows, relying therefore only on agro-forestry (on food forests). This hypothesis would, however, not be applied on already efficient lands, like peat soils for instance, which are more effective to stock carbon than a forest. This lands would therefore be kept for livestock farming. Furthermore, this scenario would only be remotely conceivable in the Western world. The fact being that millions of people do, today and will still in a near-future, only be able to survive thanks to livestock. Countries of northern Africa for instance do make use of livestock on terrains where the growing of crops is close to impossible.
If applied only in western countries, our third scenario, based on the model of agroforestry, would solely rely on the work of a few of these newly “re-wild” animals, guaranteeing the good life of the soil and the ecology of the land. These population of wild cattle could be, in case of over population, be managed by humans through hunting, as the introduction of natural predators such as wolves would be relatively unsafe in populated areas such as the Netherlands for instance. We can today, however, witness examples of cattle de-domestication in countries like Portugal where biologists have managed to successfully introduce old breeds of cows, close to their wild ancestors the “auroch”, who can defend themselves against most of their predators and would be suited to go back in the wild.
For this third scenario to be applied, it is also important to take into consideration that to guarantee food security, our food systems will have to sustain an important level of production which, for a large part, relies today on an input of nutrients which mostly comes from artificial fertilizers or animal manure. If the quantity of animal manure would be drastically reduced we would need to either increase the input of artificial fertilizers, which would also be environmentally damaging and detrimental to the soil; or rely on another model which could call on the use of human manure. Indeed, human waste products are never used in production and could therefore answer to this question. However, human manure is toxic as it includes residues of drugs, medicine as well as human transmissible diseases. We would therefore need to find efficient ways to detoxify it before even being able to consider taking the animal out of our current systems of food production.

The cost of food

One question still needs to be answered to commonly address these 3 scenarios: the cost of the food. It could be argued, indeed, that the food production of these resilient models could only be accessible to the rich upper classes, which is quite true. But we also need to consider that, before the green revolution, food was sold at a much higher price. In large cities, like Amsterdam for instance, rent costs were much lower in relation to the percentage of money which had to be dedicated to food. One solution would be therefore to re-consider nutrition, by making use of smaller quantities of nutrient rich, expensive quality products rather than large quantities of cheap, nutrient poor ingredients.”