Blog essay authored by Jonathon Turnbull (PhD Scholar, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge) and Catherine Oliver (Postdoctoral Research Associate, ERC Urban Ecologies project, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge). Both are invited contributors with the Rescaling the Metabolic: Food, Technology, Ecology Research Network at CRASSH.
The advertising department of Burger King is undergoing a probiotic turn. In a February 2020 advert, a sped-up video of a Big Whopper burger decomposing over the course of 34 days was presented; this “moldy whopper” demonstrates the “beauty of no artificial preservatives.” The advert is a slight aimed at Burger King’s main competitor, McDonald’s, whose hamburgers have infamously been rumoured to preserve for a decade when lost in coat pockets or elsewhere, almost unaffected by the passing of time. The “moldy whopper” invokes a spectacular economy of rot, where decomposability (or its spectacle) is enrolled in the pursuit of profit. The process of decomposition seemingly proves the “naturalness” of Burger King’s ingredients. A temporality of freshness and naturalness is invoked in relation to the metabolic activity of microbes on food.
In July 2020, Burger King released another advert concerning microbes, albeit indirectly: a young boy sings a country song whilst walking through a set filled with cut-out cows burping and farting. In one part, the lyrics go: “so to change emissions, Burger King went on a mission, testing diets that will help reduce their farts.” Burger King’s claim in the advert is that by converting a proportion of cattle diets to lemongrass (instead of corn) – specifically by adding 100g of lemongrass to their feed every day – there will be less methane (CH4) in their flatulence, reducing their contribution to climate change. In both adverts, Burger King directly and indirectly invokes microbial activity in their products. In the first, microbes are “good germs” in the process of decomposition, while in the second advert they indirectly invoke the action of “bad microbes” as responsible for methane production in the rumen of cattle. By feeding cattle a diet including lemongrass, Burger King promises that consumers can continue to enjoy burgers with a lower environmental impact.
Burger King’s probiotic turn speaks to more-than-human metabolism from the corporeal to the global scale. Cattle bodies have become sites of climate governance, where meddling with their metabolic processes has become a way to produce “good cows” for the “good Anthropocene.” As Ormond (2020) notes, these interventions involve a shift from cattle as “climate villains” to “climate change saviours”. Human appetites, animal bodies, gut microbes, and plant matter are all involved in the re-composition of the atmosphere. In this essay, we explore how bovine metabolic processes have become the site at (and through) which the climate-at-large is manipulated or engineered (cf. Ormond, 2020).
A note on corporate greenwashing
Before beginning our discussion of metabolism, however, it is important to note that the desire of corporations to produce – or, more accurately, to be seen to be producing – climate-friendly cattle has not come about in isolation. A range of local, national, and global environmental and anti-capitalist campaigns have had a significant impact in bringing attention to the devastating environmental impacts of fast-food corporations. In particular, anti-McDonald’s campaigns have exposed “the everyday exclusions and processes of marginalization that enable an actor like McDonald’s to exist” (Giraud, 2019, 25). More often than not, however, this important activism has been rendered invisible through the process of “greenwashing.”
Decades after the original anti-McDonald’s campaigns, made infamous by the McLibel law suit, organisations such as Greenpeace (2006) and the newly-formed Amazon Rebellion (2020) (a sub-group of Extinction Rebellion) continue to highlight the link between deforestation in the Amazon basin, the production of soybeans to feed cattle, and ecocide. With cattle and soy production come transient workers, and with them often comes new illnesses, violence, and often “blatant disrespect for indigenous cultures and communities” (Carino and Diniz, 2019). Indigenous Peoples have led the resistance against such destructive practices, claiming the forest as an important socio-historical and cultural landscape (Bolaños, 2011).
Burger King’s commercial campaign brushes over the long lineage of activism that has led to the promotion of “sustainable beef.” Through this subtle and mundane technofix solution – a rather clever instance of greenwashing – they reveal their desire to shift cattle from “climate villains” to “climate change saviours” (Ormond, 2020), both materially and representationally. Public relations played a central role in attempting to ease the consciences of consumers who wanted their burgers to be less social and environmentally destructive. But we must remember that Burger King is not leading the march towards a more just climate future, nor is any other fast-food corporation.
Herein, and with this in mind, we discuss how these metabolic interventions engender the governance of material flows and transformations that connect the rumen to the atmosphere.
Towards a more-than-human metabo-politics?
Metabolism is a multi-scalar, plural concept (Barua et al., 2020) that is both everywhere and nowhere (Landecker, 2013). Contemporary thinking on metabolism draws from both 19th century developments in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences, and from political economy, especially Marx’s writings on human-nature transformations (Gandy, 2004; Barua et al., 2020). In the rumen of cattle, these two traditions meet, entangling the corporeal with the planetary.
At the corporeal scale, “metabolism is evoked to inform understandings of the governance of bodies” (Barua et al., 2020, n.p). This corporeal metabolism describes the endless becoming of organisms, which Hannah Landecker has described as “the constant becoming of the machine itself” (2013, 16). For Landecker (2019, 542), organisms represent “a ceaselessly churning scene of incorporation and excretion in which machines, bodies, microbes, enzymes, toxins, and nutrients are moving and converting matter into different forms.” Metabolism is thus concerned with a “cumulus of interlocking cycles” (Landecker, 2013, 1); the interface between inside and outside, individual and environment, life and nonlife. As Landecker writes elsewhere this “is a metabolism for the human condition in technical society, where the food is manufactured and designed at the molecular level, the air and the water are full of the by-products of human endeavor” (2011, 190). This molecular manufacturing of food can be found in the rumen of cattle.
At the planetary scale, the idea of social metabolism was developed by John Bellamy Foster (1999), who drew from the work of Marx to conceptualise the human-nature relationship as producing a “global metabolic rift.” Marx’s social metabolism denoted the process by which nutrients and energy are taken from the environment (by people), digested, and given back (Salleh, 2010). The theory of metabolic rift contends that industrial capitalism as a mode of production has separated social from natural metabolism (Clark and York, 2005; Moore, 2017), exemplified by capitalism’s inherent tendency towards destructive ecological crises. Moore (2017, 296) troubles this reading of Marx by emphasising that the metabolic rift is not about separation of Nature and Society, but rather a “reconfiguration” and “shift.”
Capitalist relations, then, do not merely act upon nature, but move through space to “ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, ‘Cheap Natures’” (Moore, 2015, 53). Capitalism appropriates the “free gifts” of nature “as an accumulation strategy [which] works by reducing the value composition of capital as a whole” (Moore, 2015, 53). Paying attention to capitalist metabolic interventions “draws empirical attention toward systems of interlinked processes rather than things” (Landecker, 2019, 542). This reveals uneven processes at a range of scales, aiding in “understanding the coercive effects of the social, material and spatial transformations of nature” (Barua et al., 2020, n.p). Interventions in the climate-at-large being realised through bovine bodies allows us to conceptualise a metabo-politics of more-than-human life. More-than-human metabo-politics is specific to the Anthropocene. It applies to situations in which nonhuman metabolisms are subject to measurement, calculation, and interventions that have consequences that extend beyond bodies. The portmanteau brings metabolism and politics together in a vein similar to bio- and anatamo-politics to signify the governance of metabolic flows across scales.
Metabo-politics involves the governance of materials as they move through, and are transformed by, bodies (cf Lemke, 2016). Where microbiopolitics intimately connects the governance of microbial communities with the state (Paxson, 2008), metabo-politics involves the governance of microbes, animals, and the climate by corporations according to capitalist logics. While we might consider metabo-politics of flows, anatamo-politics of bodies, and biopolitics of populations as intimately connected, metabo-politics specifically offers a means of retrieving a robust political economy concerning matter itself (and its transformation) whilst retaining a focus on the vibrancy of matter put forward by various new materialist approaches. The rumen is a site of such material transformation, where the atmosphere itself is apparently made and re-made according to specific visions of the Anthropocene in which humans continue to commodify and consume cattle, whilst attempting to do less harm to the environment.
The rumen and the climate cow
In 2016, anthropologist Radhika Govindrajan proclaimed, the “Anthropocene is the age of flatulence.” Although methane from cattle primarily emerges via eructation (95%), not flatulence (5%) (Frederick, 2019), Govindrajan captures an Anthropocene problem that, as Burger King admit, is in need of “fixing.” As ruminants, cattle have stomachs with four parts: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. The first, the rumen, is where microbes break down food via enteric fermentation, which produces notoriously climate-unfriendly methane. Via eructation and flatulence, the average farmed bovine produces up to 200kg of methane annually (Johnson and Johnson, 1995). Ruminant methane production is a serious concern for climate scientists because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping capacity (Fountain, 2020). Farmed animals account for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 40% of this is from bovine digestive processes (Gerber et al., 2013). Methane from cattle alone accounts for approximately a third of all emissions from agriculture (Scholssberg, 2020) which, with global cattle numbers expected to rise from around 1 billion to 2.9 billion by 2050 (IAASTD, 2009), means cow burps and farts are no laughing matter.
This is not the first evidence of nonhuman metabolisms having climatic impacts; large dinosaurs’ methane emissions might also have changed the Earth’s climate (Rabaiotti, 2019). Cattle are the first, however, to be engineered specifically with the climate in mind by reducing their methane emissions. As McGregor and Houston (2017, 7) note, a particular vision imbued with technofix logics suggests that “with greater investment in science and technology, farming practices and cattle biologies can be reshaped in climate-friendly ways.” The prospect of technologically-enhanced efficient cattle has led to significant investments in experiments with methane reduction, such as the National Livestock Methane Program in Australia, which focuses on the “measurement of methane, genetics, supplements, forages and rumen microbiology” (McGregor and Houston, 2017, 7).
Techno-visions of cattle efficiency “advocate de‐animating and containing non‐humans further in order to better control their parts and the atmosphere” (McGregor and Houston, 2017, 9). Ultimately, however, they are rooted in a liberal idealism that favours the production of Cheap Natures – in this case climate-friendly cattle – even when these interventions cannot be scaled up to have effects at the level desired and/or required for meaningful change (Moore, 2015, McGregor and Houston, 2017). It has also been suggested that Burger King’s specific estimations of methane reductions are significantly higher than what could be achieved in reality. This is because the 33% reduction they quote “only applies to the last three to four months of cows’ lives” (Chrobak, 2020). This means that for 75% of their lives, methane output would be normal. Recalculations suggest that only 3% reductions in methane production could occur due to using lemongrass as part of their feed (Chrobak, 2020). The fast food giant also ignores wider issues related to climate change. Technological innovation as the climate solution and the appropriation of Cheap Natures have always gone hand-in-hand. As Jason Moore (2015, 70) notes, “early capitalism excelled at this: developing technologies and knowledges unusually well-suited to identifying, coding, and rationalizing Cheap Natures. Here is a new way of seeing the world [which] decisively conditioned a new organizing technic for the capitalist world-ecology. According to McGregor et al. (2021, 20), moreover, “most cattle methane mitigation research is having the perverse effect of legitimising cattle industries and prolonging emissions in a time of climate change. ”The rumen has become a new site for this organizing technic of capitalism. Through the illusion of climate-friendly cattle, made more savourable for consumers via the greenwashing campaigns mentioned above, capital is able to maintain the production of Cheap Natures.
Cattle were domesticated around 9000BC and, since then, selective breeding has led to the existence of a plethora of breeds. Cattle penning and controlled diets were introduced over a century ago in the USA to produce cattle bodies that would efficiently convert feed into muscle or milk (Fountain, 2020). Rumen experiments, via cannulation, have existed since the early 20th century. Intervening in bovine metabolic processes with the aim of lowering methane emissions is, however, a more recent phenomenon. This marks a shift from an anatamo-politics and biopolitics focused on bodies and populations, to a form of governance concerned with interlocking corporeal and global flows: a metabo-politics. This is not to suggest that forms of bio- and anatamo-politics are not at work here, though. McGregor et al. (2021) brilliantly outline the role of biopolitics and anatamo-politics at a range of scales in the governance of methane production, highlighting how they function to make cattle visible as a climate problem. However, metabo-politics does different conceptual work, drawing attention to the governance of material transformations and flows, which is what we are concerned with here. The discourse around climate-friendly cattle, or ‘super low carbon cows’ (Ormond, 2020), is encapsulated in a media by-line that reads: “Inside the hard-working stomachs of these cows, an experiment that could potentially change the planet is taking place” (Watts, 2019, n.p). While a range of techniques for producing climate-friendly cattle are being developed, including the use of vaccines, antibiotics, further selective breeding, herd management and care, and dietary manipulation, here, we focus only on dietary manipulation.
A range of dietary shifts have been proposed to lower cattle methane production, based on the idea that, much like in human digestion, reducing fibre will reduce flatulence and therefore the production of methane. Legumes and oils have been added to cattle feed to reduce fibre (Watts, 2019) and some UK farmers switched their cattle feed to maize which might reduce methane production by 10% (Haque, 2018). More recently, lab trials have shown the addition of asparagopsis (a type of seaweed) to cattle feed could potentially eliminate emissions of methane (Kinley et al., 2016). Asparagopsis produces bromoform, which prevents the formation of methane in the rumen (Scholssberg, 2020), an intervention similar to that of Burger King’s lemongrass. Wheat-based diets for dairy cows can also “increase milk production by 20% while lowering methane by 30%–50%” (McGregor and Houston, 201, 7). But dietary shifts are not without problems. As the microbes that break down these introduced foods are different, “cattle have to be monitored carefully for bloat or other health problems” (Fountain, 2020).
A researcher quoted in Watts (2019, n.p) notes, “better quality feeding makes animals more productive, and more productive animals produce less methane,” but, as Scholssberg (2020) asks, “how do you change a fundamental fact of animal biology in an ethical way that doesn’t affect milk or meat?” By making cattle more efficient, they “are alive, and belching methane, for a shorter time” (Fountain, 2020). Clearly, these techniques are firmly rooted in anthropocentric and objectifying conceptualisations of nonhuman animals, reflected by the support these experiments receive from venture capital funds and huge consortiums of food companies, such as Starbucks (Scholssberg, 2020). Dietary changes for cattle reinforce an ecomodernist commitment to technofix solutions to Anthropocene problems, presuming economic efficiency and productivity can be increased without necessitating any change to the status quo, such as reducing beef and dairy intake. Whilst unsurprising, it is interesting that humans are more willing to change cattle diets than their own.
As Govindrajan (2016, n.p) reports, the rumen is one of “nature’s wonders,” and can “adapt quickly to different scientific solutions and return to producing methane in a few weeks.” Bovine metabolic interventions cannot offer a seamless solution. Indeed, scientists run the risk of altering microbial ecologies with unforeseen consequences. The microbiome is closely linked to both physical and mental health, and small changes could result in large health impacts (Watts, 2019). Scaling such projects up also poses significant problems (Tomkins and Kinley, 2015) and, as McGregor and Houston (2017, 8) note, if “absolute cattle numbers continue to expand as expected, it is likely to overshadow any marginal emissions gains developed through the research.”
Scale, therefore, remains important. Whilst shifting the diets of cattle could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the reductions are incomparable to those that would come about through ending beef production and consumption, and wide-scale adoption of plant-based alternatives (Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg, 2020, n.p). The focus on climate-friendly cattle also does nothing to challenge the production of animals for human consumption in the first instance. Rather, they re-legitimise the eating of cattle, much like the PR-campaigns associated with “happy meat” (Cole, 2011).
As Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg (2020, n.p.) note, “when the public started to get queasy about animal treatment, the meat and dairy industry advertised happy cows. Now that attention has turned to cows’ methane-rich burps, the meatpackers are hawking carbon-neutral cattle.” Climate-friendly cattle distract from taking more radical action on climate change, shifting the responsibility for climate change across corporate value chains, producing cattle themselves as “the embodiment of carbon reduction” (Ormond, 2020, 136). The creation of an optimistic narrative around the consumption of beef is part of an economy where signs and spectacles are used to direct the public “away from questioning market structures and consumption behaviours to questions of brand loyalty” (Ormond, 2020, 136; cf. Barua, 2020). Like clean coal, climate-friendly cattle are “more an oxymoron than a practical solution” (Dutkiewicz and Rosenberg, 2020, n.p).
Cannulation: the materiality of climate cattle
These dietary experiments often occur via an intrusive cannulation procedure, sometimes known more gruesomely as “fistulation.” Cows are cannulated via a permanent hole – a fistula – being cut into their side (BBC, 2019). Into this hole, a cannula – a tube made of thick plastic – is inserted to keep the rumen open. This is sealed with a removable cap, allowing food to be deposited and removed from the rumen at (human) will. Historically, cannulation has been used to understand how cattle’s stomach pH varies throughout the day and to evaluate the effectiveness of different feeds on the digestion of cattle. The technique was developed in the early 20th century, first on goats in the 1910s, and then on cows in the 1920s (Welk-Joerger, 2021). These early metabolic studies were conducted at agricultural colleges in the US, where cannulated cows were often college mascots (Welk-Joerger, 2021). They were used to try to determine whether cattle could synthesise certain B-vitamins on their own through restricting their dietary intake (Welk-Joerger, 2021). A logic of capital, moreover, is inscribed into the technique, as agricultural colleges have the “improvement” of animals’ efficiency and that of their (by)products as core principles.
The cannulation of cattle is touted as a simple and effective means of accessing the “quintessential symbiotic relationship” between cattle and the bugs in their stomachs who convert cellulose into energy (O’Brien, 2014). Cannulation might be understood as an opening into the holobiont; a visceral example of what Barua (2018) describes as the porosity of animal work. The boundary of the individual bovine body can be found in the rumen, rather than at the surface of the body. Through intervening in metabolic processes with planetary ambitions, the rumen is reframed as “not quite the organism nor quite the environment, but the moving zone in which the two become one” (Landecker, 2013, 18). As Annemarie Mol (2002) contends, there is no fixed static boundary to the body, but rather an interaction between inside and outside. Bodies, therefore, are semi-permeable. Here, the rumen overflows the cattle body.
In his Manifesto for a Chemical Geography, Andrew Barry (2017, 13) proposes that “the chemical compositions of atmospheres, landscapes and bodies have become critical sites for politics, government, and everyday experience.” Where the broiler chicken carcass has become a signature of the Anthropocene’s stratigraphy (Bennett et al, 2008), methane from cattle might be one of the Anthropocene’s atmospheric signatures. The rumen and the atmosphere are connected through a logic of governance that does not usually apply to life, but rather to machinic emitters like cars and power stations. It is crucial to note that although these bovine experiments have been touted as producing “cows that are saving the world” (Watts, 2019), they are in fact sutured to an economic system that is doing the opposite. As Burger King feeds its cattle lemongrass, the company continues to expand year on year into more locations making even marginal reductions in methane emissions unlikely. These interventions into cattle bodies are a technofix solution to global environmental problems in which “[c]apitalist-designed environmental remedies continue to intensify the metabolic rift” (Salleh 2010, 206).
Conclusion: atmospheric cattle
Cannulated cattle and climate cows serve as visceral exemplars of the porosity of animals’ metabolic work, reminding us that “in a world that is truly open there are no objects as such” (Ingold, 2007, S28). In these interventions, there is no distinction between working on cattle bodies or metabolisms and working on the atmosphere. The two were never separate; their entanglement has just been brought into focus by these specific forms of metabo-political governance. Metabo-politics captures multiscalar techniques of governance that meddle with corporeal metabolisms with the intent of having planetary scale consequences. These climate interventions can be read as new forms of molecular governance running through nonhuman and human bodies at the corporeal and global scales. Empirical resonance might be found by others in metabo-politics related to synthetic biology, genetically modified crops, and other climate-friendly agricultural animals.
The shift to intervening in the metabolism of cattle to act on climate change is reflective of how “knowledge of metabolism in the postindustrial period is suffused with environmental risk, regulation, and information” (Landecker, 2013, 497). Metabolic research allows for parameters to be rethought, re-scaled, and re-imagined (Landecker, 2013), where intervening in metabolic processes at the site of the body can have planetary scale impacts. In tracing these bovine metabo-politics, we build on a rich tradition of research in the field of bovine biopolitics (see Holloway, 2007; Holloway et al., 2009; Holloway and Morris, 2014; Lorimer and Driessen, 2013; Ormond, 2020; McGregor et al., 2021), contributing to it by using metabolism as a conduit for going beyond bio- and anatomo-politics to attend to the governance of circulations and the modulation of flows (Lemke, 2016) that exist in the atmospheric rumen of cattle. Cattle are governed not only as lively capital but as planetary-scale actors: atmospheric Anthropocene animals.
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 The advert has since been removed due to criticisms that is exaggerates the effects of flatulence (when most methane is released from eructation). Critics were also displeased by the imagery of children wearing gas masks and the depiction of farmers as yodelling cowboys.