Do we 'know' or do we 'think'?

For whatever reason, people seem especially prone to confuse the think/know relationship around agriculture and climate change.

Dr. Nevil Speer

April 4, 2019

5 Min Read
Do we 'know' or do we 'think'?

Maybe it’s the former teacher in me, but when people confuse “think” versus “know” it makes me crazy. Just because you think something, doesn’t make it so. And for whatever reason, people seem especially prone to confuse the think/know relationship around agriculture and climate change.

Worse yet, that confusion is routinely reinforced by the media. Recently, there were two examples, just a day apart, that illustrate climate change think-versus-know mix-up.

The first was a segment on WHYY (Philadelphia’s public radio station) entitled, “Should we stop eating meat to fight climate change?” Part of the story featured Deanne Boyer, who manages 40 head of cattle just outside Philadelphia. WHYY described her operation this way:

A lot of the land on the farm is left empty. The idea is that the cows wander freely, eat the grass and excrete just enough to keep the land fertile and support more grass. The grass absorbs carbon dioxide and helps deal with climate change. Boyer rotates the herd, so no patch of grass is overwhelmed by the cows. Boyer also maintains a little forest on the edge of her farm, with lots of trees and shrubs, which soak up more carbon dioxide.

That pretty well describes most operations in the U.S. Better yet, though, WHYY actually proclaimed Boyer’s farm as “part of the climate change solution.”

If only it ended there; but think and know got jumbled along the way. Boyer declared she’s “… fighting the issue of climate change … by using my land in a more responsible way.” WHYY then tells us that, “If she were farming cattle on an industrial scale, Boyer said, the picture would be very different. ‘This whole area would be filled with cattle as far as you can see, there would be no grass at all, it would just be dirt, mud, manure, concrete.’”

“Dirt, mud, manure, concrete” is a wholly inaccurate depiction of cattle production and animal agriculture. But then again, what do the phrases “more responsible” and “industrial scale” really mean? Those sound like think statements, rather than know statements. There’s nothing to back them up. However, it all sounds nice for a radio audience.

In contrast, I’m reminded of Leo McDonnell –- his multi-generation family operation has previously been honored by the Beef Improvement Federation with the Pioneer Award –- focusing on feed intake and efficiency (note an emphasis on innovation, science and technology). As part of that pursuit, McDonnell was featured in a GrowSafe video several years ago in which he talks about his commitment to, and knowledge of, stewardship associated with farming and ranching:

When you live where we live, out here, it’s like being on vacation every day -– as far as being outside and what not. You know the independence of it, instead of being in the office –- working with livestock, working with nature …. It doesn’t start and stop with the clock…. It’s not just riding a horse. You gotta know grass management. You gotta know water …. It takes a lot to run a ranch.

No comparative statements; rather, he’s simply explains his everyday reality. Best of all, his comments are authentic and represent many operations.

But then the think/know conundrum was further confounded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on MSNBC’s “All In America with Chris Hayes.” When asked about climate change she explains, “We need to innovate on our technology. Obviously, I had a staffer release a document talking about cow flatulence.” At that point, host Chris Hayes interjects: “Which is an issue, I just want to say. It sounds ridiculous, but it literally is an issue.”

After all the hullabaloo around cow farts and the release of the Green New Deal, one would hope the Congresswoman would have at least done a quick-course on ruminants, and the difference between flatulence and eructation. But alas, she still doesn’t understand the difference. So, she responds, “But it [flatulence] actually is an issue when it comes to contributing to methane.” That’s a think, not a know.

Most perplexing to me, on one hand, Ocasio-Cortez will proclaim climate change as an issue of science; but on the other hand, she doesn’t even understand the basics of animal science. Meanwhile, apparently, she doesn’t think of animal agriculture as innovative or implementing technology -– that’s because she doesn’t know. She then doubled-down with the following: “But that doesn’t mean you end cows, it means that we need to innovate and change our grain -- our cow grain -– which they feed in these troughs. We need to really take a look at regenerative agriculture. Like these are our solutions.”

Amidst all that noise and chatter, McDonnell reminds us of the bigger picture: the management, the cycle and the “regenerative” properties when it gets done right:          

“I think one thing people forget is why we even have cattle and what the sweet spot of this industry is –- well over 60% of this land is arid in the world. And you’ve got a product out here that has not value to humans for food. And we’ve been blessed with ruminants, like cattle and sheep, that can take this and convert it to a high-density protein –- that’s enriched and has a lot of value. And it’s pretty cool when you think about it. We manage our grasses and we use cows to harvest it to provide a great food -– that’s beef.”

I’m still trying to figure out what the statements, “cow grain” and “like these are our solutions,” means. But in looking for answers, it would be refreshing if -- just once -- the media would ask people who know (like McDonnell), versus endorsing voices who just want to tell us what they think. Maybe then we really would find some real solutions.

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