The 95 million cattle in the U.S. spend their days eating, chewing cud and belching out planet-warming methane. Unlike humans, cow don't digest their food in their intestines but rather in their stomachs. The bacteria that help them digest their food also makes methane. In our era of growing awareness and concern about greenhouse gasses, this is an issue.
We hear frequent calls in marketing and social media to reduce red meat consumption and switch to plant or nut juices. Cows are blamed as a major contributor of the world’s environmental problems. We need to, so the reasoning goes, reduce the global cattle population to combat climate change. In fact, methane production from livestock has been decreasing for decades as cattle numbers have declined by millions of animals. But despite the 1.4 billion cows on our planet, most methane comes from humans. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., and half of those (that’s 5%) come from belching cows as they digest forages.
Cows are a contributor, but are not the villeins they are frequently portrayed in the press. They are easy targets because cows don’t have deep-pocket lobbying groups. So where do most greenhouse gasses come from? Fossil fuels are the top culprit, producing one-third of all methane. This is another example of diverting people from the real issue and blaming the little guy. For unlike dairy, the gas and oil industry yields lots of cash and influence. Nor does it help that most people are so cut off from their food that they believe the marketing hype that drinking aquafer-draining almond “milk” is better for the planet than the real thing.
So let’s talk about cow burbs. Here’s the 411. Methane is 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, however its lifespan is one decade, while CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000 years. After ten years, methane is broken down (by a process called hydroxyl oxidation, if you’re interested in this sort of thing) into CO2. And as you may know, farmland plays a big role in sequestering carbon. According to one study, farms capture and store the same amount of greenhouse gasses that the cows burp. Net neutral is still not good enough, but neither are cow burps the calamity we're regularly told.
And cow emissions can be easily reduced. A recent study at the University of California, Davis shows that a little seaweed in cattle feed reduces methane emissions from cattle by 80%. The seaweed inhibits an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that contributes to methane production. The seaweed has no impact on the taste of milk or beef, and helps strengthen the animal’s immune system. (BTW, Kiss the Cow Farm has always offered free-choice kelp to our cows; they like it).
Cattle actually have a vital role in saving our planet and feeding people, but that’s a story for another week...