What is the Carbon Footprint of a Flying Cow?

Irish authorities are planning to fly calves to Europe in search of a bigger market.

Irish Calves
Calves in Buttercup Meadow, County Clare, Ireland.

 Tim Graham/Getty Images

Treehugger has often covered the carbon footprint of cows. And the carbon footprint of flying. But I honestly never thought we would be covering the carbon footprint of flying cows. But in Ireland, they are planning on flying calves to Belgium or the Netherlands as a way of getting them to European markets in less time; the current journey is considered inhumane and the Dutch government is considering a ban on trips more than eight hours. According to the Guardian, that's actually the law in the EU, but an exemption was written into the rules for Ireland.

The calves that are slaughtered for veal are a byproduct of the dairy industry; they are usually the males taken from their moms at birth and not useful for milk production, which is expanding in Ireland. Treehugger has covered veal production before, and called it excessively cruel, noting that "veal has a bad reputation because of the extreme confinement and cruelty involved in the way veal calves are raised on factory farms." And that is before they are put on trucks and taken to market.

Teagasc, the Irish agriculture development authority, tells the Irish Farmers Journal that "this transportation is being examined from the point of view of calf welfare and environmental sustainability." One wouldn't think they need much research to find out that sticking calves on airplanes is not particularly environmentally sustainable.

This is apparently a result of Brexit; according to the minutes of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, they need new markets.

"Teagasc is carrying out a trial involving flying a plane with 900 calves to Ostend in Belgium. At least if the calves can get there, it would be easy enough to distribute them right across Europe. Flying is more expensive at almost double the cost but we could get into newer markets. There is a demand in Spain, particularly for Friesian bull calves, but even for the Jersey cross calves. There is a market in Spain for calves that might be 12 to 15 weeks old."

All this is being done ostensibly because of animal welfare (and of course, the attempts by the EU to ban long trips) but Ethical Farming Ireland notes that for calves, just like people, getting to and from the airport adds to the trip time, writing in Facebook:

"Flying calves around the place is absurd. Plus it will reduce the travel time but it will still be a long journey - the calves have to travel to the airport which could take a few hours, they have to be unloaded from the trucks and loaded onto the plane and have the same at the other end. The excessive noise, changes in air pressure and turbulence will cause immense stress for the tiny calves. Deal with the problem at source rather than exporting it."

For now, the trial charter flight has been delayed; according to the Independent, "the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in almost all freight airplanes in the world being taken up by transportation of vaccines which is currently taking precedence over animal transport."

As far as environmental sustainability goes, nobody has even mentioned the carbon footprint of all this, but according to my calculations, flying a 60-kilogram calf 750 kilometers from Ireland to the Netherlands emits about 93 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). Given that Ireland has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, maybe it might be a good idea just to cancel the whole project.

View Article Sources
  1. Scorer, R. S. "Animal Welfare and Veal Trade." Nature, vol. 374, no. 6521, 1995, pp. 402-402, doi:10.1038/374402a0