The cow and the planet

After a rea­son­ably warm day I’m in the train, enjoy­ing the farm­land between Ede and Amers­foort. The orange evening sun slow­ly sinks towards the hori­zon. In the sky I see a lot of air bal­loons float­ing by. It must be nice to lit­er­al­ly tran­scent the every­day hus­tle and see your every­day envi­ron­ment from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Wub­bo Ock­els, who flew a lit­tle high­er and looked at the Earth from space, was deeply con­vinced of the need to pro­tect our plan­et: “We are real­ly where we are: on a beau­ti­ful plan­et, that we can­not do with­out. We are all astro­nauts of Space­ship Earth.” (

Mars Cow

Human­i­ty has not fin­ished explor­ing new areas. Last year, the Mars One project start­ed. In 2024, this project plans to send the first peo­ple to Mars to begin a per­ma­nent res­i­dence there. Futur­is­tic as it may sound, the tech­nol­o­gy is avail­able and the plans of Mars One are very practical.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to look for anoth­er plan­et because as it is, we will have devoured the earth with­in a few hun­dred years. We burn fos­sil fuels in a sui­ci­dal pace because the eco­nom­ic train has to keep going. We know exact­ly which activ­i­ties are mess­ing up our cli­mate, but knowl­edge can­not make a dif­fer­ence if it is not trans­lat­ed into policy.

Which brings me to the sub­ject of cows. Every time I become futur­is­tic about my own life, a cou­ple of cows show up in that pic­ture. Very roman­tic, in a mead­ow with a fra­grant haystack and a tree under which they can have their sies­ta. But I’m not sure this dream will ever be real­ized, because keep­ing live­stock has var­i­ous neg­a­tive effects on the envi­ron­ment. In Europe, live­stock pro­duc­tion caus­es 10% of green­house gas emis­sions. This is main­ly due to the beef and dairy sec­tors. Anoth­er aspect is the accu­mu­la­tion of nitro­gen through fer­til­iz­ers. Bio­di­ver­si­ty is also declin­ing by using land for food and fodder.

Cli­mate change is already caus­ing hunger because weath­er pat­terns are becom­ing more extreme: more droughts and more floods. Oxfam is cam­paign­ing to call the major food pro­duc­ers to account for their con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate change and their pas­sive atti­tude when it comes to solu­tions. As Dutch con­sumers, we can reduce the foot­print of agri­cul­ture by eat­ing less meat and dairy than the exces­sive (unhealthy) amounts that we devour at the moment.

Thurs­day is World Envi­ron­ment Day. Let’s cel­e­brate it while we still can. And if we end up on Mars any­way, I would like a lit­tle Marscow in our back­yard capsule.

Read­ing tip: The Pro­tein Puz­zle, PBL Nether­lands Envi­ron­men­tal Assess­ment Agency, 2011.