A Whole Load of Bull

June 5, 2009

Fossil fuel lobbyists and countries guilty of highest green house gas emissions (mostly developed countries) have a new target in their sights. She has four legs, loves a good scratch and usually goes by the name of Daisy or Buttercup. Yup, she is our good old cow or Bos taurus. Nourisher of billions and worshipped by millions she is probably the animal we have most benefitted from since animals were domesticated. But there are people pointing fingers at her while simultaneously sipping double latt├ęs sourced from her udders. Her crime; belching. Her critics cite a U.N endorsed report that attributes our bovines with contributing to 18% CO2 equivalent green house emissions, which is more than the transport sector. This fact has been lapped up by media looking for a change from fossil fuel bashing and a ‘balance’ in reporting news. Is bovine belching really that catastrophic?

If we dissect the U.N report the 18% figure is the total contribution of the cattle farming sector not just methane belching cows. Methane accounts for 24% of global warming and belching by ruminants (including sheep) accounts for 26.4% of methane production. Thus gassy livestock are responsible for 6.3% of global warming, which is only 1/3rd of the U.N figure. The remaining 2/3rds are a result of resource-intensive cattle farming industry with dependence on fertilizers, land conversion for pastures and processing. A significant portion of bovine emissions comes from nitrous oxide produced when manure decomposes naturally.

What can be done to reduce this bovine guilt trip? A less intensive cattle industry holds the key. One kilo of beef releases 22kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (the same as producing one iPod) while 1kg of wheat flour releases only 1/2 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions. In many countries like India, cow manure has great value to rural communities as dung cakes for fuel. Biogas plants where cow dung is anaerobically digested to produce methane gas used for electricity and as a cooking gas. Cattle feed with flaxseeds and summer grass can reduce methane emissions by 18% as well as the sector’s dependence on corn and soya feed, which are produced at the expense of forests and food crops. Companies are also looking at producing ‘cow methane’ to power vehicles. Each cow contains 80-100 kilos of residual methane which is extracted as a byproduct of the meat industry. This is heated, put in digesters and purified to produce vehicle-ready methane gas. A veggie diet is an easy way for individual bovine fans to do their bit. Just don’t put a gift cow in the mouth.