Methane warms the Earth’s atmosphere 23 times as much as does carbon dioxide. Cows emit a great deal of the stuff through their farts and belches: 37 percent of the total, of which one percent is from farting.
So, are cow farts bad for the environment?
Research that saw the strapping of plastic tanks to the backs of cows found that, with over 55 million cows in the country, 30 percent of Argentina’s greenhouse gases could be attributed to cows.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that cattle have a greater environmental impact than cars and trucks, and called for a tax on the emissions of cattle, which has occurred in Estonia. Methane production entails that cows aren’t utilising their feed as efficiently as they could. Global production of beef and milk is expected to double over the next 30 years, and this is a problem that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.
In the case of France, about five percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the country are estimated to emanate from cows. Valorex, a French company, has devised a scheme to cause cows to belch and fart less by changing their diet.
Valorex’s Bleu-Blanc-Coeur (Blue-White-Heart) nutrition program brings the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids present in the diet of cows into balance. Scientific research demonstrated that when these are unbalanced, cows emit more methane. Rather than a diet based on corn and soy, treated cows are fed alfalfa, grass and linseed. Jean-Luc Besset, a spokesman for Valorex, said that while cows usually emit between 600 and 800 litres of methane each day, this can be reduced by 20 percent.
The scheme is supported by the French government and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Farmers must adhere to strict guidelines, including monitoring the methane output of cows. This can be gauged through the analysis of milk. Jean-Marc Laffargue, a beef farmer, is well aware of the effect of cattle on the environment, and joined the programme three years ago. He said, “The incentive is moral.” Valorex is providing a financial incentive in addition to a moral one: carbon credit rewards for farmers who enter the scheme. These credits can be used for discounts on Valorex products.
Michel Cantaloube, a farmer in the southwest of France, said that the milk of his 70 cows that have been thus treated tastes better. Their overall health has also improved, so they require less antibiotics, and they’re more fertile. Research by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Dairy and Swine Research and Development Centre revealed that a change to diet could improve milk production, too. Nationally, the Valorex scheme has prevented 8,365 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. Cantaloupe said he was pleased to have made an effort: “Doing something good makes us happy.”
There are other ways to tackle the problem. Although the diets of the two animals are similar, kangaroo emissions contain only between a third and a quarter as much methane as those of cows due to bacteria found in their stomachs. Scientists attempted to transfer this bacterium to cattle and sheep.
Roo meat is low-fat, edible and popular in Germany, France and Belgium, and not being hooved, these beasts damage soil less. Kangaroos also require significantly less food and water. Although Greenpeace recommended that Australians eat more kangaroo, Skippy couldn’t generally be farmed in other countries in place of cows as he’s sensitive to humidity and it’s difficult for him to breed outside of Australia.
The gene that causes methane in ruminant animals has been identified, so either a vaccine could be developed or cattle and sheep could be bred selectively to produce less methane, in the same manner as has been conducted for years to produce animals bearing more meat and less bone.
Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican Senator for Oklahoma, was most assuredly wrong when he identified the $700,000 awarded by the Department of Agriculture to the University of Hampshire to investigate methane emissions from dairy cows as one of the most wasteful government programmes of 2010.
Holy cow, Batman!
Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”