The Cow in the Room

People often avoid the elephant in the room, but it’s time we talk about the cow in the room. She is a ruminant, after all, and can no longer be ignored. Indeed, the room is getting increasingly crowded and stinky. Let’s ruminate together and use our cowmon sense, so we can replace ignorance and crisis with science and solutions. 

It’s no secret that beef and milk are bad for cows, less well known is how bad they are for personal and public health, and perhaps even lesser known how destructive they are for our rainforests and climate. Cow’s got your tongue? 

Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary

In her 2017 article “We Need To Talk About The Cow In The Room,” activist Zephie Begolo says, “The cow, quietly chewing away on her cud, burping [and farting] out small but potent blasts of methane has replaced the proverbial elephant and represents animal agriculture and our broader, severely broken food system; the vast industrialization of which being one of the main drivers of impending climatic and environmental catastrophes.” Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, but can also dissipate in the atmosphere much faster. That is cause for hope — if we take quick and appropriate action.

Evidence suggests that livestock is responsible for 51% — a majority! — of greenhouse gases (GHGs). If we take a longer view (8,000 years!), animal agriculture is responsible for 87% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Sailesh Rao in “Animal Agriculture is the Leading Cause of Climate Change.” Cows are the most greenhouse gaseous of livestock animals. Cowabunga! 

Here’s my beef with beef. If cows were their own country, they would be the third-largest emitter of GHGs after the US and China. Big Beef is destroying our world. The cows’ revenge is that as we kill them, they in turn kill us. We should eschew, not chew, meat because the excuses are simply bull crap. 

Brazil has about 22% of the global herd, an amount that has been increasing with about 80% of global growth of the herd coming from the country. Brazil is the second-largest producer of beef (after the U.S.). To accomplish this, the Amazon Rainforest has been felled and burned, even though it is the most biodiverse place on Earth and the “lungs of the planet.” Nearly a quarter of the amazing Amazon has been destroyed since the 1970s. About 80% of former rainforest is used for cattle grazing, while a further portion is growing genetically-modified soy for livestock feed (about three quarters of the world’s soy is fed to livestock). We are making mincemeat of the rainforests, converting incredibly precious nature into carbon and cholesterol, each deadly in its own way. The steaks couldn’t be higher! 

Attorney Lee Hall declares that “Behind virtually every great environmental complaint there’s milk and meat.” In addition to the carbon hoofprint of the cattle, our methane mouthprint from consuming these unnecessary and unhealthy products is unsustainable. Beef is BS. It is no wonder that Jane Goodall is vegetarian for the environment and Greta Thunberg is vegan for our climate. They changed their moo-d and they are both hoofing it for health, compassion, social justice, and sustainability. 

“Ending the use of domestic ruminants… for meat and milk over the next 15 years,” a 2021 study concludes, “could result in a three-decade pause in global warming.” That would be an invaluable respite from the onslaught of rising temperatures and rising seas, extreme weather events, melting glaciers, floods, droughts, wildfires, and more, giving us a fighting chance against this most pervasive and pernicious threat to life on Earth. 

So now that the cow is out of the bag, let’s moove to a better way of eating, create a smart cowalition, and join the herd for a safer, saner, sustainable diet. 

It’s long overdue that we put cows out to pasture and instead eat (unprocessed) plant-based foods as they do. When we do, we will practice compassion, reverse climate change, reduce the incidence of pandemics, and be healthier, happier, and more peaceful and productive. Don’t be a coward! We have a world to save. 

Jeff Vanuga_USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Dan Brook teaches sociology at San Jose State University and is on the Board of San Francisco Veg Society and the Advisory Board of Jewish Veg. His books include Eating the Earth: The Truth About What We Eat, Justice in the Kitchen: An Or Shalom Community Cookbook, and Harboring Happiness: 101 Ways To Be Happy


  1. Fabulous article, with a message essential to efforts to avert a climate catastrophe, with great humor. Kudos to Prof. Dan Brook.

    The issues are so urgent that I will be happy to email complimentary PDFs of the complete text and the cover picture to anyone who requests them by emailing me at

  2. Thank you for this Dan.
    Yes we must talk about the cow in the room.
    Just watched Milked.
    A must see documentary.

  3. Diana Scott says:

    Bravo, Dan – splendid piece!
    Will share.


  4. Benjamin Smith says:

    Thank you I can articulately tell you how to build a house and create amazing structure. You sir have created a greatly emotional and intellectually skillful portrait of Hope. Whether we get it in this generation or the next go around I am inspired by this writing. Thank you

  5. Excellent article with impeccable logic. Now to get this message “herd” by the masses – in time to save our planet.

  6. Excellent article, Dan! Thank you for your work to bring about a more sustainable, just, compassionate, healthy, and well-fed human presence on Earth!

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