Monday 26 October 2020

The Myth of the Global Cow

Posted by Martin Cohen

Data crunchers have started to attack farms on the basis of statistical creations such as ‘The Global Cow’. Of course, there’s no such thing. The sublimation of differences in concepts like the average cow, leaves cows and sheep who are helpfully and quietly grazing grass suddenly accused of inefficiently expropriating vast tranches of valuable land, while farmers keeping animals fed soya in sheds can be reinvented and presented as efficient and ‘climate friendly’. And yet summarised and simplified messages creatively abstracted from the data itself construct a global picture, skewed by preconceived ideas, and designed to influence policy decisions.

    • The idea of ‘the Earth's average temperature’ is also an exercise in mental gymnastics - which parts of the oceans are included - or of the atmosphere? Does it make sense to have hypothetical data points in uninhabited regions? Even NASA and the Met Office cannot agree. 

   • Food policy in particular always seem to consist of sharp, Manichean (good versus evil), divisions even as most things are nuanced and a matter of detail - and degree. Missing from both types of thinking is any acknowledgement that the experts behind the expert consensus are also political and ideological subjects, and the vast majority of respected science (or any research) is produced from a mainstream and shaped by the policy objectives of funders.   

But let’s just take up that idea of a ‘global cow’. Even small farms can be completely different in terms of differing habitats and differing good or really bad practices in one place. Last year I had a series of email exchanges with a Welsh couple in the Brecon Beacons (on the England/ Wales border) about their efforts to graze farm animals ‘sustainably’. The two explained how they have mountain grazing rights on the Brecon beacons and have cattle grazing an ancient hill fort, to preserve the archaeology from the incursion of scrub and to enhance the diversity of the grassland untouched by a plough for millennia, if at all. All their fields are natural pasture kept in a grazing rotation. One of the fields is an iron age enclosure and has never been ploughed in modern times! Yet now the call everywhere is to shun animal farming and rely solely on crops. 

The couple keep grassfed (Dexter breed, as in  the picture above) cattle and sheep and rare-breed pigs, all raised outdoors and supplemented  by a range of non-soya concentrates, and farm amazingly sustainably. They firmly believe that the sheer complexity of their farm demonstrates that the global environmentalist models about ‘Norm’ cannot possibly map onto reality anywhere on the planet. 

Instead, their farm is a case study in how the new ‘plant-based food’ movement risks upturning delicate relationships between humans and nature but also a more anthropological study in how apparently deeply-entrenched attitudes towards long-established activities and traditions can be rapidly changed by elite groups using sophisticated control of public information.


Keith said...

In the Manichean sense you introduce, Martin, the agricultural and food industries are likely populated by some blend of those who are well intentioned and those driven by self-serving intentions. Both groups may at times be right, and at other times be wrong. No one’s right all the time; it depends on where an industry stands as the political mudsling (also called lobbying) ensues. In those respects, I suspect these industries are no more immune to shenanigans — conceits and deceits — than, let’s face it, all other industries. Some of these ‘food fights’ get addressed and remedied only slowly — because of entrenched business interests and the parties’ death grip on ‘what’s theirs’ — but even then often to be reversed by later science, later economics, later policies, and later regulations.

Martin Cohen said...

The point I thought the piece ws centred on was how we abstract a general notion, and how that abstraction can be totally misleading. So, in the case of food policy, there is a range of farms that really doesn't fit the supposed generalisations. There are terrible things called 'Concentrated Feeding Operations' in the US, there are freerange cattle being used as a way of monetising destruction of rainforest - but thera re also cattle in harmony with nature in both African and European farms run along small-scale traditional lines. The point I thought of the piece was to warn against statistics that generalise things that maybe should be kept distinct.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I consider that extremely powerful algorithms which process vast statistics may be one of the greatest threats to the planet today. Algorithms -- even learning algorithms -- include what they are made to include, and omit anything and everything else. With the size of the analyses which are happening every second of every day, they actually do drive what we do -- and the whole lot is skewed by partial considerations.

More to do with my personal experience, my father-in-law was a (modern) shepherd -- now retired. In his youth, he owned the last of the stock of the trekboere, who were roaming farmers with indigenous animals. The animals needed no drugs or treatments. But withdraw the same from European stock, he said, and they will die. The animals are so heavily drugged and treated that for much of their lives they are inedible.

Martin Cohen said...

Re. Thomas, the whole world is now in the hands of computer modellers with their 'algorithms', isn't it? Meaning the claims that viruses behave in such and such a way and such and such a strategy can control them.

Gregory Kyle Klug said...

This reminds me of a documentary I just watched on Netflix called Kiss the Ground. In it they say that cows actually benefit the environment when they graze in rotation on parts of a farm that also grows vegetables. Apparently there is a net decrease in carbon emissions as the soil absorbs waste, whereas in feedlots there is a high net increase. The film opposes the myth that cows are bad for the environment.

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