When they speak and write about the greenhouse effect, environmental stewardship advocates these days tend to talk mainly about the emissions from cars, jets and factories. Those things are definitely important, and there’s a ton of work left to do. But has everybody forgotten about methane from cows? Remember when cow effluvia used to be a thing? Well, it still is.
As a greenhouse gas, methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and agriculture produces 14 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide. With methane production from livestock estimated to rise by 60% over the next 17 years, farm etiquette won’t be the only thing that suffers because of gassy cows. Thankfully, the world’s scientists are hard at work on the issue.
A Great Moment in Science History
European scientists want to turn our beef into a more sustainable food by reducing the impact that methane from cows has on global warming, and they’d like to do it by selectively breeding a new generation of cattle that won’t burp. Pretty standard stuff, really.
A group of experts from France, Italy, Sweden and the UK, among other nations, are running the RuminOmics project. They’ve got over $10 million (or the weird Euro equivalent) in funding to find novel ways of raising animals more efficiently and with less environmental cost. Their research shows that some cows produce less gas than others, and they’re hoping this information can be coupled with a change in livestock diet to dramatically decrease methane from cows in the future.
As it stands, the average cow is predisposed to frequent fits of belching (and less frequent fits of flatulence). It’s difficult to pin down the amount of gas we’re talking about, but daily emissions of methane from cows are estimated to range from 25 gallons to over 130 gallons per animal. If a new breed of supercattle is on the horizon, we might see these estimates fall dramatically as the meat and dairy industries turn each cow into a more conservative methane discharger. This should be good news for sustainable food fans who can’t stomach the environmental cost of animal products, because beef, milk and cheese would suddenly have a much smaller ecological footprint.
That’s Not the Only Solution for Methane From Cows
It turns out, though, that this is only the latest attempt in a long line of efforts to curb the emission of methane from cows. Some scientists are pushing an organic diet for dairy cows – although milk output is reduced, they live longer and produce less gas. In the name of environmental stewardship, German scientists have also tried converting the methane produced inside a cow’s stomach into sugar, but this requires a rigid diet and strict feeding times. That’s a little too much structure for cows.
Of course, one other option for saving the environment is eating less beef. If we don’t have to raise cows for the meat and dairy industries, the line of thinking goes, we’ll make a huge dent in methane production. That sounds good on the surface, but let’s be honest here: a heck of lot of people would have to become vegetarians for that idea to be viable. To solve the world’s problems, we must be practical.
Besides, the truth is that omnivores and carnivores can be sustainable food advocates too. No matter what you eat, if you’re reading this blog right now, the chances are good that you’re just as excited about environmental stewardship as we are. You know that the future is out there, and that it’s coming fast. Gas-free cows are just the beginning. One day soon, perhaps cultured beef will save us all.
Do you think more polite cows are the future of environmental stewardship? Or is science whiffing on this one? Let us know what you think about gasless cattle in the comments section!