Bossy Battles the Methane Monster

A Cow Learns the Truth About Livestock and Global Warming

Bossy the beef cow was laying down in the shade of the big maple, her favourite place to ruminate after her morning graze. Bossy felt good about her job, knowing that she was one of only a handful of animal species that could utilize tough, high cellulose plants like grass and corn stalks and use them in the creation of high quality protein that could help feed the world's ever-growing human population. She valued her alliance with the millions of microbes in her rumen which were the key to releasing the energy stored in plant fibre. And Bossy knew that her species' contributions were especially important in developing countries, where lack of animal protein in the diet was a major cause of sickness and disease for millions of people. Every once in a while, Bossy would let out a contented, virtually silent burp. It was good to be a cow!

But Bossy's contentment was suddenly shattered when her best friend, Daisy, settled in beside her and shared a newspaper article titled "U.N. Blames Cows For Global Warming". The story quoted from "Livestock's Long Shadow"1 a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which stated that the livestock sector of agriculture was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that this was greater than that emitted by the transportation sector. The article went on to say that livestock are responsible for 37% of human related methane production, with most of that coming from the digestive tracts of ruminants. Bossy burped again, but this time it was an uncomfortable sensation. Suddenly, being a cow didn't seem to be such a good thing after all.

A week later, Bossy and Daisy again shared the same spot of shade. Bossy hadn't had a good night's sleep all week. She kept having nightmares haunted by the "Methane Monster" which kept pointing a grey gaseous finger at her. In her dreams, her burps were loud and everyone was staring at her accusingly. Bossy now looked gaunt, and her formerly shiny hair coat was rough. She had been actively scanning the media to learn more about cows' methane production and global warming. It seemed that everywhere she looked, the message was dire. Cows were being blamed as major contributors to global warming, with their methane production featured in everything from national news broadcasts to teen magazines. She even read about a European effort called "Less Meat = Less Heat", and something called "Meatless Mondays" in the US. Being a cow seemed more like being a criminal than an asset to the world.

World GHG Emissions by Sector.
Figure 1. World GHG Emissions by Sector.2

Daisy, looking sleek and healthy, settled in and began reflectively chewing her cud. Bossy demanded to know how her friend could act so relaxed when they were being blamed for causing so much of the problem of global warming. Daisy explained that she found out a lot more about the facts since sharing the initial article. In particular, she read an interview with Dr. Frank Mitloehner, of the University of California at Davis3. Dr. Mitloehner, an air quality specialist stated that some of the statements in the executive summary of the FAO report were not accurate, in particular that the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of CO2e (CO2 equivalents, which accounts for the different warming potency of various gases), and that this is a higher share than transport. Dr. Mitloehner pointed out that the FAO report generated a total for the livestock sector which included not only gases emitted by the animals themselves, but also by growing animal feed and processing the meat and milk into foods. And Mitloehner further stated that leading authorities agree that in the U.S., raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3% of all greenhouse emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26%.

Daisy was keen enough to read the whole FAO report herself, and found out that their "livestock" total for greenhouse gases also included those resulting from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer production, deforestation and desertification of land! Daisy and all of her livestock buddies were taking the blame for many factors outside of their control. In, fact, when Daisy did her cowgirl arithmetic using the FAO's own figures, she found out that when counting only the greenhouse gases actually produced by the animals themselves (from digestive processes and manure production), beef cattle accounted for only 4.4% of human related GHG gas production. Things like burning coal, oil and natural gas to produce heat and electricity, and using gasoline and diesel to fuel cars and trucks were much greater factors in the total production of greenhouse gases. In fact, energy production, transportation, industry and forestry added up to 75% of human caused GHG emissions.

Bossy and Daisy talk over climate change.

Figure 2. Bossy and Daisy talk over climate change. [photo credit: Robin Michetti Photography]4

After this talk with Daisy, Bossy felt a lot better. She wasn't as embarrassed at the small burps she was letting out as her microbes digested fiber. She thought about the millions of acres of land in the world that was suitable only for growing forages, and the tonnes of left over crop residues which humans could not eat. She thought about the 1.3 billion people employed worldwide in livestock industries, and the fact that many people in developing countries struggle to get enough high quality animal protein in their diets. She knew she would have a good sleep tonight. It was great to be a cow!

References

  1. LIVESTOCK'S LONG SHADOW: environmental issues and options. Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2006.
  2. IPCC Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers [image adapted by T. Hamilton]
  3. Don't Blame Cows for Climate Change. [interview with Dr. Frank Mitloehner UC Davis News and Information. Dec 7, 2009.
  4. Robin Michetti Photography.

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