The duck question

Some people aim to keep their plates red by replacing beef with duck. Is that the solution to our climate problems? No, but…

As an editor, I’ve spent the past 20 years working to elicit specific responses from readers. Sure, there’s been a lot of click on this headline COME ON DO IT you know you want to read about [some science or tech situation]. But I’ve also poured a lot of effort into making people feel: empathy, excitement, compassion, humor, anger. My colleagues and I spent hours nitpicking words, images, fonts, publishing schedules, sounds, layouts—and so much more—to stoke our audience’s brains and get them to engage with us. 

Speaking of which, click this button COME ON DO IT:

Sometimes, though, you get a response that can only be described as tidal in its size and consistency, and it comes outta nowhere. Like last week, when a bizarrely large number of you emailed me to ask about… duck. 

What? Yeah. Huh? I know. 

As the wave crested, I thought for a minute I was being punked; but then I started replying to folks and realized this was a genuine and weirdly common question. Here are some sample emails. Names have been withheld to guard against angry birds: 

I do not know if ducks fart. OK, I googled it quickly and it seems like maybe they technically could but they generally don’t because their stomachs lack the bacteria to produce the necessary gasses, but let’s not get sidetracked. Let’s stay astonished that those three emails represent a fraction of the people who read an email about hunting deer and then inexplicably sent an email about buying duck. Message received, Universe. 

Quick programming note: Let’s call today’s note one5c lite. I lit the schedule on fire to look into this very specific question for you, but I didn’t give it the full treatment. Everything here is secondary-source reporting, so please consider it the beginning of a mutual exploration. I’ll wrap up the series on food next week with a deep dive on 🐟.

Duck may be a red meat, but it’s not red meat. Which is to say, ducks aren’t ruminants, fermenting plant matter in their stomachs. They don’t emit a significant amount of greenhouse gas in the way that cows do. But they’re still animals, and animal agriculture is not only less efficient on a calories-per-acre basis, it creates more planet-warming emissions than farming plant-based food. Animals raised in captivity need to be fed, and that food needs to be grown. (Even the strictest pasture-raised operations I could find augment with harvested food.) So when an animal eats, it’s not just incurring the land, water, and agriculture-related emissions required for its own care, but those that are required to grow its feed as well. 

Meat production creates more direct emissions and also opportunity costs: The extra land required could instead be returned to its natural state, which would, in most cases, sequester more carbon. There is, of course, a spectrum, and some operations are better than others. If you need to eat meat, and you can afford to be choosy, look into where it comes from

But even though global warming is by far our most pressing environmental issue (fight me, I’m ready), it’s not the only environmental issue. Animals evolved to live on land, and land evolved to have animals on it. So when a farm is run in such a way as to foster natural processes of regeneration, there can be important ecological benefits. An animal’s waste can feed and strengthen the earth, and farmers that create systems in which their herds nourish their land are bright spots in the future of agriculture. 

There is another side to that coin: Waste can be toxic, and this is a big problem in poultry farming. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algal blooms in nearby waterways and crush soil health. 

Scale can exacerbate the problem. An acre of land can naturally support a certain number of ducks without harm, but a CAFO can house 40,000 birds in less than three acres. That is not even close to natural, and these birds can produce nearly half a million gallons of manure a year. A smaller and/or unconfined operation would produce less concentrated waste, and as Glynwood’s Laura Lengnick noted in our conversation about cattle, smaller farms can afford to experiment with more sustainable farming practices. 

The same holds true with waterfowl; duck farmers from Vermont to China are evaluating new techniques. One of the coolest is actually an older Japanese practice known as the aigamo method, which raises ducks alongside rice. It’s more colloquially known as rice-duck farming, and it employs the birds in place of pesticides to control weeds. The result, according to one study, is a reduction in polluted runoff by up to 92% as compared to chemically assisted rice farming. 

Another study shows that rice-duck farming cuts methane emissions by more than 6 percent. Rice, by the way, has a methane problem. Its flooded paddies keep soil from absorbing oxygen, which allows methane-emitting bacteria to thrive. When ducks cruise around the paddies, their adorable little feet stir up the sediment and release some of the oxygen that’s stored there, hampering the bacteria’s growth. That process is called bioturbation, and it’s the same thing that happens when you walk in a lake or a pond and stir up those slow-motion clouds of mud-dust and make Godzilla sounds. 

Here’s another vocab word: ducketaraian, which is what I will become if we can shave 6 percent off rice’s CH4 penalty with farm-raised duck. Rice is a staple food for 3.5 billion people. There are more than 400 million acres of rice in cultivation worldwide, and this technique could have huge implications if these conclusions are confirmed and it can scale. This is a perfect example of the kind of experimental agriculture we need to bring our food systems back into balance; right now, they’re way out of whack. American agriculture is so good at converting nourishment into perversion.

But American agriculture isn’t actually all that relevant to the legion of you who wrote me about duck. We don’t make enough of the stuff for a massive dietary shift. America ranks ninth in global duck meat production, and it’s not a tight pack. This is from the FAO Statistical Database:

Here’s that data in chart-form, which makes me chuckle. Glad we’re ahead of Poland!

According to the USDA, the average American consumes 54.6 pounds of beef in a year. Meanwhile, our country produces 128 million pounds of duck in that same period of time. You see where this is going: we only raise enough domestic duck for 2.3 million people to sub it in for beef. There isn’t enough duck meat in the world for Americans to replace their beef habit with duck meat. If even five percent of the population switched, we’d need to stop exporting it (we’re Mexico’s number 1 source of duck meat, for example) and start bringing it in from other countries while we ramped up domestic production. We’d need 13 percent of China’s duck. Or all of Myanmar, Vietnam, and South Korea’s.

Now we’re having a conversation about food miles, and our ducks are starting to smell gassy after all. As a reminder, eating local is an easy but powerful move that most people can make to lower their personal emissions. 

Maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe small-scale duck farms will pop up across the country in response to increased demand. Maybe more farmers will adopt the aigamo method and mitigate the methane emissions from the nearly 3 million acres of planted rice in America. Here’s hoping. 

So what’s your duck move? Ask questions. What conditions are the animals raised in? (Small, local farms = better. CAFOS = “abomination.”) What do they eat? (Forage > feed.) How does the farm deal with its waste? At least get the name of the place that raised your duck, and look it up.

The person at the store may answer your questions with a blank stare, but if you keep asking, they’ll tell someone. If enough of us ask, and enough someones get told, that information will make its way to the people who make purchasing decisions. 

Don’t underestimate the influence you can have over what your local store sells, even if it’s a chain. You have more power than you think. The recent timber of the climate conversation rings with so much futility and resignation: individuals can’t make a difference when Exxon and BP can wipe out all our good work with one rotten deal. That’s bullshit. Our actions and words and money and votes will push the companies and governments that serve us to deliver a better future. If you’re feeling outnumbered, bring more people into the fight.

Over the past past two months, we’ve talked a lot about this fight in the context of small acts anyone can perform. The acts are important in and of themselves, but they’re not actually the point. They are meditation, and the state of mind is the goal. When you start questioning your impact, the opportunity to be gentler on the planet starts popping into your consciousness with increasing frequency. Every time you open the trash can or hit the gas pedal or walk past the cold shelves of meat.

That is what being part of a movement feels like, and even the act of asking a question—can I replace beef with duck?—is evidence of its power.