The Other Greenhouse “Gas”: Cows & Climate Change

Jillian N. Bittner

You drive to the supermarket in your “green” car, checking your back seat before you leave for your re-usable bags– yet you stand on line about to purchase the packaged beef sitting at the bottom of your cart and do not stop to think twice about the environment? – Perhaps you should.

While the environmental legal community emphasizes the desperate need to harness and reduce CO2 emissions as a way to mitigate the current and impending consequences of greenhouse gases on climate change, the community at large has ignored the impact of a greater culprit – CH4, or rather methane gas.  Animal agriculture accounts not only as a source of CO2, or nitrous oxide (N2O; another potent greenhouse gas), but is the number one source of methane gas worldwide – beating out the effects of vehicles and airplanes combined. But why should the environmental and legal communities be more concerned with CH4? According to the EPA, “methane is about 21 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than CO2 by weight.”

Cows, and the corresponding beef industry, are the largest contributors of methane gas. Cows produce this effect partly through belching and flatulence as a consequence of their digestive systems, which are characteristic of ruminant animals. Yet CAFOs remain unregulated. Continue reading

More on Cows and Climate

fart_cow_1Following up on the post below, this article in the NYT bears a look.  Some in the dairy industry (e.g. Stonyfield Farms) are experimenting with feeding dairy cows green plants instead of corn to see if it lowers their methane output.  Guess what?  It does.

Cattle fed alfalfa and flax emit less methane than those fed the industrial ag diet of corn and soy (apparently most of the emissions come from burps rather than the other… — who knew?).  Guess what else?   Cows that eat food that they can digest naturally also live longer than those who eat grain.

I suppose I should rejoice that the dairy industry has begun examining such issues but I am too busy worrying about the likelihood that dairy and beef cattle production will double over the next three decades.  As the article mentions, the cattle industry already poses more of a threat to the atmosphere than cars and trucks combined.  Somehow, I don’t think alfalfa and flax are going to solve this little problem.

–David Cassuto