Apr 24, 2009
Global warming stinks.
Some people mean that so literally that they’re starting to blame rising temperatures on cow farts.
I am not making this up. Just Google the terms “global warming” and “cow flatulence” and check out the results. The hits number in the tens of thousands, and they comprise a long list of earnest environmentalists who think that bovines need to reduce the size of their fart footprint.
This is more than a climate-change curiosity: its part of a melodramatic campaign against meat.
“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” bleated Henning Steinfeld, who works at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and runs something called the Livestock Information and Policy Branch. His group insists that farm animals emit more greenhouses gases than all of the auto tailpipes in the world.
If you bother to read the fine print behind these claims, it’s not just cow farts they’re worrying over. They’re also upset about sheep burps. When they’re trying to sound sophisticated, they use fancy words such as “eructation.” (Go ahead, look it up.) But let’s not engage in semantics. A “correctional institution” is still a prison, and what we’re talking about here are the farts and belches of four-legged animals.
The real concern, of course, isn’t with their beastly etiquette. Instead, it’s about methane. When cows, sheep, goats, and similar cud-chewing animals digest grass, they produce methane that has to escape their bodies at one end or the other. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and it accounts for between four and nine percent of all greenhouse gases--which, of course, are the gases that have the potential to heat the earth.
Because of this, some Greens are calling for a war on meat. They want people to stop eating so many hamburgers. They reason that reduced demand for livestock will cut down on the amount of burps and farts loaded with methane.
Believe me, I know full well what these animals are capable of generating. As a professional cattle feeder, I can walk through a pasture or a feedlot, take a deep breath, and learn quite a bit about a herd and its nutrition.
You probably know about horse whisperers. Call me the cattle whiffer.
In all seriousness, this kind of sensory information is critical in determining feedstuff quality. Good digesters have a pleasant, organic odor and poor digesters have a nasty, sour smell.
That doesn’t mean I’d be sad to experience a reduction in cow farts--or, more importantly, the methane they produce. Scientists are already working on ways to reduce intestinal methane, possibly by increasing fish-oil additives. But it remains to be seen how much they’ll accomplish: In the past, cottonseed additives were touted as a potential solution, but they didn’t live up to their promise. Neither did chloroform additives. They helped briefly, but then stomachs adjusted to them and the animals began discharging methane all over again.
Another possibility is to target the bacteria that are essential to bovine digestion. Researchers are sequencing the genomes of the leading varieties right now. It’s hard to know where their efforts will take us, but biotechnology already has delivered enormous benefits to agriculture and environmental sustainability. This may be yet another way it can make a contribution.
What we can’t sacrifice is the quality of our food. We should expect meat whose taste and affordability isn’t compromised by unsavory obsessions with bovine emissions.
People all around the world enjoy the taste of meat. As societies grow wealthier, the demand for meatier diets grows with it. Projections suggest that over the next half century or so, meals in developing countries will include larger quantities of beef, chicken, and pork at meals.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this--even though the international food police apparently would prefer a planet of vegetarians.
Our challenge is not to join the alarmists. They’re just breaking wind. Our opportunity is to accept the promise of science and technology.
Everything else is just a lot of hot air.
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member. (www.truthabouttrade.org)