Cow farts. It’s the most common, bogus, and most inaccurate - cows burp - claim against beef in the media.
There are many contributors to methane production and cattle are too often the villains in today’s story, but methane from any natural, biological process is reductionistic.
Methane produced biogenically is a part of the earth’s natural system. The methane emitted from cattle is part of the biogenic carbon cycle. They transform existing carbon, in the form of grass and other forage, into methane as part of their digestive process. It’s belched out and after about ten years is broken down into water and carbon dioxide molecules, which are cycled back to grow more grass.
The biogenic carbon cycle is the process by which plants absorb and sequester carbon. Plants remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and deposit it into plant leaves, roots, and stems while releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere, in a process known as photosynthesis.
When plants perform photosynthesis, carbon is converted to cellulose, a carbohydrate that is foundational for growing plants. Cellulose is the most abundant organic compound in the world, present in all grasses, shrubs, crops, and trees, and particularly high in grasses and shrubs found on marginal lands, land unsuitable for growing crops. Two-thirds of all agricultural land is marginal, full of grasses dense in cellulose, a fiber that humans can’t digest. But guess who can digest cellulose?
Cows eat these grasses, and through enteric fermentation use the carbon and upcycle the cellulose for growth and other metabolic processes.
As depicted in the graphic above, cows belch methane which is then broken down into water and carbon dioxide molecules for plants to uptake once again via photosynthesis and fix to cellulose. And this natural cycling of carbon begins again.
Fossil fuels on the other hand are not a part of the biogenic carbon cycle. We extract ancient carbon that has been locked underground for millennia, releasing new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which lasts thousands of years compared to methane’s ten years. For reference, the CO2 released from driving a car to work today will remain in the atmosphere, having a warming effect on our climate beyond our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, and even their children’s lifetimes.
Furthermore, many scientists have concluded that cattle are unfairly blamed for their methane emissions as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the IAEA Annual Report in 2008, researchers state:
Since 1999 atmospheric methane concentrations have leveled off while the world population of ruminants has increased at an accelerated rate. Prior to 1999, world ruminant populations were increasing at the rate of 9.15 million head/year but since 1999 this rate has increased to 16.96 million head/year. Prior to 1999 there was a strong relationship between change in atmospheric methane concentrations and the world ruminant populations. However, since 1999 this strong relation has disappeared. This change in relationship between the atmosphere and ruminant numbers suggests that the role of ruminants in greenhouse gasses may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting.
This doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that before the mid-1800s, there were about 30-60 million bison, over 10 million elk, 30-60 million white-tailed deer, 10-13 million mule deer, and 35-100 million pronghorn and caribou grazing North America’s grasslands. We’re now carrying a fraction of the animals and it’s estimated that in pre-settlement America, methane emissions were about 86% of current emissions from both farmed and wild ruminants.
In addition to cattle emissions being overblown, it’s also increasingly evident that methane emissions from leaky infrastructure in the oil and gas industry are underestimated by 48-76%. So not only are fossil fuels the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, as I discuss in this article, but this would also make them the leading emitter of methane.
It’s not the cow, it’s the car.
Bottom line: Blaming cows for methane is a red herring for the fossil fuel industry.
Matt Chatfield – I’m too lazy to farm against nature by Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food Podcast. A conversation with Matt Chatfield, the founder of Cornwall Project, to talk about the crucial impact of ruminants on land, how to build a successful business by farming with nature, and how to create a guaranteed market. Inspiring insight: When vegans visit the farm, they have a positive reaction. Ex-vegans form the fastest growing market in the UK. They’re realizing that you need animal fats of some sort in your diet and, at the same time, they’re looking for ethical systems. As a former vegan myself, this resonated with my return to health and ethical eating, too.
Natural Resource Institute helps assess value of Texas’ ecosystem services by Sarah Fuller. “Can you put a price on clean air, water or white-tailed deer? The Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, NRI, partnered with other agencies to study and assess the value of these “commodities of nature” and subsequent losses associated with land use changes.” Valuing the invaluable is an arduous task, but NRI has just released a report aiming to educate Texans and guide land conservation efforts. Read more here.
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