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Zornio: Could Colorado be looking at a future without cows?

As climate change worsens and bioengineering takes off, Colorado's cattle industry faces an uncertain future

If the reactions to Gov. Jared Polis’ inaugural “MeatOut Day” were any indication, Colorado ranchers are about to get extra moody.

For many in the Centennial state, herding pink-snouted bovines is a source of pride. From juicy hamburgers to Gucci handbags, a whopping 2.7 million cows — equivalent to nearly half of the state’s human population — contribute to the multibillion-dollar cattle industry. It’s a dominant force in politics and economics, with lobbying teeth far sharper than the herbivores themselves could possibly muster.

With so much at stake, how might cows go the way of the Dodo? 

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

In some respects, the challenges facing animal agriculture are reminiscent of the foils faced by the fossil fuel industry. As human-driven climate change worsens, massive wildfires and drought threaten to further shrivel western soils.

For some Colorado ranchers, the reality of resource scarcity is already hitting home. For others, paying out the snout for greener pastures or culling herds is only a matter of time. 

While many are fighting back against the inevitable struggles, not everyone is reluctant about shifting from slaughterhouses and milking machines. As former Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick Brown bluntly puts it: “Let’s get rid of friggin’ cows.

True to his word, Brown set a bold goal as the CEO of Impossible Foods, where he plans to trounce the meat and fish industries with genetically engineered plants by 2035. 

Disrupting the industry altogether seems like a tall order, but with shifting demands, capitalism and new technology, it might actually be possible.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

While only 2.5% of Americans over the age of 50 identify as non-meat eaters, one in four Americans now say they have cut back on meat consumption, and a full 11% of Americans under age 50 fill their plates with either no meat or fully plant-based diets.

These generational shifts are driven by a growing concern for greenhouse gas emissions — global livestock production contributes to an estimated 14.5% of total GHGs, and cattle represent roughly 65% of the sector’s output — as well as concerns for deforestation, lack of biodiversity, antibiotic resistance and health implications.

It’s not only the demand for animal alternatives that’s rising — prices for conventional animal products are rising, too. In a comparison from February 2020 through June 2021, the cost of beef rose a whopping 13.2%. This put plant-based alternatives on the same playing field pound-to-pound for the first time, with purchases soaring over 108% in sales for some companies.

Luckily, these products aren’t your mother’s veggie burgers.

Where once stood a heap of lumpy bean paste, today’s variety of meat alternatives is like upgrading from the Model T to a Tesla almost overnight. Not only are genetically engineered plants now simulating the bleeding and texture of real beef, for example, but a combination of advances in bioengineering and gene editing are soon expected to bring cultured meats to market. 

In these futuristic forages, a starter line of real animal cells is procured — derived from animal muscle, fat or even umbilical stem cells to avoid killing livestock — and are used to grow meat in petri dishes instead of on the pasture. The result will be fully animal-based meats with fewer ethical and environmental concerns. Similar genetically engineered advances are also underway for dairy alternatives to improve creaminess and taste. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As delicious as this particular capitalistic takeover might be, the cattle industry isn’t having it. From implementing smart technology to offering less gassy feed to experimental vaccines, it’s clear that ranchers, feedlots and meat processors have no intent to go anywhere any time soon. 

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: big changes are coming to the cattle industry. For my money, I’d be prepared to moove on.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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