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‘Planet’ podcast gets real about beef production

Messages address claims by environmental, animal rights groups.

Heather Smith Thomas

February 16, 2023

6 Min Read
Cattle
Cows roam on pasture in Idaho.Heather Smith Thomas

Agricultural podcasts are nothing new, but typically target listeners within the agricultural community. A very different podcast series called Cows on the Planet was begun in early 2021 and targets consumers, with the goal of presenting a balanced, science-based perspective on beef production practices.

Various topics discussed include some of the claims by environmental and animal rights groups that animal agriculture is the leading cause of negative impacts like global warming, water depletion, deforestation, and species extinction. These podcasts utilize interviews with scientists and other experts with “no-holds barred” commentary on inaccurate or biased science.

The livestock industry faces “bad press” from groups that think raising food animals is unethical or damaging to the planet. To counter some of this negativity, research scientist Tim McAllister of the Lethbridge Research and Development Center, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and colleagues began producing a series of 36 podcasts to provide science-based information on cattle and their environmental impact, looking at the most controversial aspects of beef production.

Some of the topics covered include the following:

  • Are feedlots cruel to cattle?

  • Are grazing cows harming ecosystems?

  • How much do cattle contribute to climate change?

  • Is antimicrobial resistance in cattle harming people?

  • Manure versus chemical fertilizer—which is better for soil?

  • Should cattle be replaced with native species such as bison?

  • Do cattle have a role in regenerative agriculture?

  • Should meat be grown in a lab?

  • How much water does it take to make a burger?

  • Are cattle using too much land?

  • Livestock and global food security.

  • Negativity to agriculture in the media.

  • Are there harmful residues in beef?

  • Carbon sequestration and grazing.

“We invite experts who are actually working in the area of a particular topic we want to discuss, or talk with people intimately involved in things like biodiversity and beef,” McAllister says. “We’ve interviewed people from all over the world. One podcast contrasted beef production in Africa versus beef production in North America and we have also done interviews on beef production in India and the Netherlands. There is a big push in Europe to get rid of livestock to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we looked at what the consequences of that would be.”

Information resource

The objective of these podcasts is to gather information and share it with public listeners.

“We try to provide information we feel is accurate and balanced, so people can make better informed decisions when they decide what they want to eat and what they want to purchase,” explains McAllister.

One podcast discusses greenhouse gases and how cattle produce methane as a natural process in the rumen. “We compared the small emission from cows versus a jet plane. We try to put these things into perspective. Many people want to develop solutions, but getting rid of cattle is not the answer; the small emissions from cattle won’t make much difference. We want people to be aware of the context—the contribution to emissions from the cattle industry relative to other societal activities—so we can make sure efforts are focused on the areas within human activities and practices that have the greatest impact in terms of lowering greenhouse gases,” he explains.

Another podcast interviewed CLEAR (Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research) Center Director Dr. Frank Mitloehner (UC-Davis) to answer the question, “Can we eat our way out of climate change?” and discussed how diet choices affect the climate, ruminant use of marginal land and implications for global nutrition as well as food security, and the importance of food literacy starting in elementary school.

“We address topics like meat and cholesterol levels, fatty acid profiles, etc. We’ve interviewed human nutritionists and are not just cherry-picking people who might have a certain message; we invite people who are very familiar with a topic and have done true science,” says McAllister. The goal is to be impartial and balanced, instead of using biased tactics like the adversaries of agriculture who pick and choose what suits them and take things out of context to make presentations against beef production.

“We have one podcast from the perspective of the media: why are there such highly negative documentaries which are not science based—and selective about who they ask to participate—and how do those end up on Netflix while others that are more balanced don’t? Part of the reason is sensationalism, because sensationalism sells.”

There have now been more than 10,500 listeners on the program—on every continent except Antarctica. “We’ve done sessions at universities across the U.S. and Canada and online discussions with students who listen to the podcasts. We ask them to select 3 or 4 they were most interested in. We have online discussion with them about the podcasts, what they mean, and any questions,” says McAllister.

A discussion with urban people spawns the kind of questions that arise from folks who are unfamiliar with livestock agriculture. This is a good way to interact with the public so they can ask questions. “We hope they will exchange some of the information they glean from these podcasts with their friends,” he says.

“Our question now is where we go from here. We’ve already covered some of the major topics and have produced a treasure trove of information that is still going around, and still very relevant. Maybe we just need to find a way to have more people listen to these podcasts or continue to quote them,” he says.

“We’re worried that if there are no more new ones, and no more promotion, it may die off and people won’t be listening to them. It costs a certain amount to maintain podcasts on the network and keep the ‘library’ there. To be actively promoted we’d need some support and funding and have someone take care of that. We’ve promoted it on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and have someone helping us with that, and this kind of activity would need to continue,” says McAllister.

Useful information

“When we interview people, typically the podcast is about half an hour. We have rankings on all 36 podcasts. We know which ones have been listened to the most, and this will be useful information going forward; these are areas in which the public has the greatest concern.”

There are still a few more, to air in the future. “This will take us through the end of the two-year program, which will be March 31st. We will give our report to BCRC at that time and see whether they have an interest in continuing,” he says.

“We’ve hoped that people would suggest topics, but we haven’t had a lot of suggestions. What have we missed? We’re starting to get some overlap in some areas, so if we were to do a whole new series, it would be good to have a way to come up with some new topics.”

For people interested in listening to some episodes, “Cows on the Planet” is available on Apple podcasts as well as most other podcast providers. Contact McAllister at [email protected] or (403) 317-2240.

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