J500 Media and the Environment


What Happens When We Cut The Cheese by Lauren Keith

Art by Lydia Marano, flikr.com
Art by Lydia Marano, flickr.com

Carbon dioxide soaks up the limelight as the big bad wolf of global warming, but its partner-in-carbon-crime, methane, might huff and puff and build up in our atmosphere first.

A large source of atmospheric methane is from the world’s cattle.

Every day, one cow farts and burps 240 liters of methane. That’s 120 two-liter bottles filled with silent-but-deadlies multiplied by the world’s 1.3 billion cattle.

It’s the most inconvenient truth of all, Al Gore: Eating steaks and hamburgers is killing the planet (among other things).

Not once in his 96-minute presentation did Gore mention methane. But methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and emissions have increased by 240 percent since 1994, when carbon dioxide has increased only 30 percent in the same time.

Scientists are attempting to correct the problem by altering the bacteria in the cow’s stomach. But we are failing to address the real problem: our increasing consumption of meat.

Not to toot my own horn, but becoming a vegetarian is a more sustainable lifestyle. I wouldn’t dare suggest that everyone become a vegetarian, but saving meat for certain occasions may save the planet. All food can be made with meat substitutes or without meat.

Feedlots, especially in western Kansas, forget that global warming will hurt them from rising temperatures but no extra rainfall. Warmer temperatures will force them to pull water from the already water-stressed aquifer.

Global warming is playing its own version of natural selection by changing the types of plants found in Kansas. Plants resistant to droughts survive while native species die. If grazing animals refuse to eat these new plants, companies would move north to find suitable plants again, taking a devastating portion of Kansas’ $7.3 billion agriculture industry with it. (PDF)

Eliminating beef from your diet may seem a little un-Kansan, but making up for that by eating locally grown produce should keep farmers in business.

Whatever the solution, we can’t keep farting around with such a serious problem.

Cows, cows, the musical food. The more you eat, the more we’re screwed.

—Lauren Keith

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16 Comments so far
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I don’t think there are enough acres around Lawrence to feed the city of Lawrence locally.

Also, you don’t take into effect some of the positives cattle production does have. No I’m not just talking about the yummy meat on a stick. And I definitely agree that the feed lots and meat packing parts of the industry could use some work.

What I am talking about is the benefit of having open space for wildlife, while also producing food. In Wyoming, at elevations that are too high to grow much human food, you can raise cattle. Certain breeds will graze well above 10,000 feet. Right along side them are the elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, etc. The cows there are as much a part of the environment as those animals are. It all works pretty harmoniously together.

Another question I have had with the argument of the methane from cows is what about the methane that was released by the giant bison herds that used to cover the plains. Did that cause global warming?

I am just curious I actually don’t know. Does anyone know how the Bison herds compared to the number of cattle we have now?

Also could the percent increase in methane be attributed to landfills? Have the numbers of cows gone up that significantly in the last 14 years? These are questions I would need answered before I buy the idea that the increase in methane is mostly attributed to beef.

Happy to be learn something new though.
-Adam

http://www.zazzle.com/j3nny3lf/product/235785966828933347

Comment by acbowman

For 22 years, from 1976 to 1998, carbon dioxide level and average earth temperature both increased. This resulted in a scary Hollywood movie and world-wide global warming hysteria. Group-think developed in the climate science community where peer-review bias led to de facto censorship and a paucity of published studies that objectively investigate the extent to which human-produced carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. It has been over nine years now and atmospheric carbon dioxide level has continued to increase but temperature has gone down. Apparently no one did any real research before or they would have discovered that 440 mya the planet plunged into the Andean-Saharan ice age when atmospheric carbon dioxide was over ten times the present level (http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/virtualmuseum/climatechange2/07_1.shtml ). With a little further real research they would have discovered that, in the current ice age, temperature trends have changed direction at many different temperature levels. This could not occur if there was significant positive feedback. They might have also noticed that carbon dioxide level change lagged temperature change by hundreds of years. The forced conclusion from all this is that non-condensing greenhouse gas, and therefore human activity, has no significant influence on global temperature.

http://disinter.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/coldest-winter-in-decades/#comment-6073

Comment by disinter

Adam,

You asked:

“Another question I have had with the argument of the methane from cows is what about the methane that was released by the giant bison herds that used to cover the plains. Did that cause global warming?

I am just curious I actually don’t know. Does anyone know how the Bison herds compared to the number of cattle we have now?”

You’re comparing apples and oranges: native bison in a pre-industrialized era versus modern over-fed cows produced in corporate feedlots specifically raised (slaughtered) for widespread distribution.

Maybe those bison contributed to global warming, too, but it’s highly unlikely they competed with today’s feedlots.

-Ranjit

Comment by rarab

Lauren,

Check out Chive and Leeks’s post . The lighter side…

John K

Comment by genghiskuhn

Ranjit,

Just because cattle are over fed and produced in commercial feedlots doesn’t mean that they produce more methane than animal populations that once inhabited the earth.

I guess what I am trying to ask is, Do food animals produce more methane than animals throughout history?

Maybe I am looking at the issue from a strange angle, but it doesn’t seem like apples and oranges. I might give you a modern farm apple versus a natural wild apple.

Comment by acbowman

Ranjit,

Just because cattle are over fed and produced in commercial feedlots doesn’t mean that they produce more methane than animal populations that once inhabited the earth.

I guess what I am trying to ask is, Do food animals produce more methane than animals throughout history?

Maybe I am looking at the issue from a strange angle, but it doesn’t seem like apples and oranges. I might give you a modern farm apple versus a natural wild apple.

-Adam

Comment by acbowman

Adam,

I heard you the first time! 😉

Seriously, when you write:

“Just because cattle are over fed and produced in commercial feedlots doesn’t mean that they produce more methane than animal populations that once inhabited the earth.”

Really? What evidence do you have to support this? Because later you ask:

“I guess what I am trying to ask is, Do food animals produce more methane than animals throughout history? ”

If you don’t know the answer, how can you claim the earlier statement? Since you’re making the argument (and not Lauren) perhaps you should supply the evidence rather than sending her (or me) on a wild goose chase.

“Maybe I am looking at the issue from a strange angle, but it doesn’t seem like apples and oranges. I might give you a modern farm apple versus a natural wild apple.”

Fine, consider it Granny Smiths versus Golden Deliciouses (is that even a word?).

Comment by rarab

Ranjit,

I think a lot is getting lost in the translation here. I wasn’t trying to claim that cattle don’t produce as much methane. I meant to say what essentially you said to me, the argument of comparing commercial cattle to buffalo as apples to oranges felt like you were making the argument that beef cattle do produce more methane.

And I was trying, (very un-eloquently) was to simply say that commercialized by title doesn’t make it bad. It very well could be. But there has to be evidence to support it.

This link goes to a epa study. It shows that cattle methane emissions have gone down in the last few years from better production. Meaning better feed, better breeding, etc.

http://www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/conference/ei12/green/mangino.pdf

Comment by acbowman

Adam,

I actually went on that wild goose chase and looked at several articles that addressed the points you raised…I can cite these specifically if necessary but the basic point was that, yes, methane levels from cattle had decreased in recent years, but that was mostly the benefits we’re witnessing from methane regulations put in place by the Clinton/Gore administration.

Moreover, another report mentioned that while methane levels from cattle have been curbed to some extent by changing their diet, methane levels in the atmosphere continue to be problematic because lots of methane is getting released from drought-plagued wetlands.

Anyway, the point of the articles I read was that methane is still a serious threat, and that cattle account for about 10 percent of the methane in our atmosphere. So, no, cattle are not the main culprits, but, as you say, it is one variable we can control (to an extent).

Yes, changing diet is a good step for commercialized feedlots. However, until that type of feed is mandated by government regulation, I don’t see that becoming commonplace since the current destructive dietary practices are more cost-effective for the major corporations.

–Ranjit

Comment by rarab

Not to untoot the vegetarian horn, but anyone looking for healthy, local bison or beef should check out the local meat market, every Wednesday at Local Burger, 4-6 pm. It could be argued that these animals are raised and grazed in a way that improves the grasses and health of the biodiversity in the region, but don’t ask me, go to the meat market and ask the ranchers – they know better than anyone because it’s their life, and they see it everyday. Plus, grass-fed and finished meats are so much better for you!

Comment by jkongs

Ranjit,

I was on the goose chase too, and just didn’t want it to be a one man game.

I also didn’t mean for you to do research, I was wondering if anyone just knew the answers.

Methane, although a green house gas, seems like a much more manageable gas. Most of the research I did revolved around landfill emissions, and programs started to collect and use the gas for energy. Nothing I read had this opinion of “we can’t do anything about methane.” It seemed more like we just need to do the things that can be done.

I know ranchers are very concerned about sustainability and production. If we can find the right set of values to talk to feedlots and packing plants, regulations may not be necessary. As I said before in the beef recall debate, having regulations means that someone has to be monitoring them. And the government just can’t get it done.

-Adam

Comment by acbowman

Adam,

No worries about the goose chase…I like chasing geese (researching arguments)…just wasn’t sure if I could do enough digging to respond in a timely manner.

Anyway, we agree that methane emissions can/should be curbed, but again it boils down to our fundamental difference about how that is achieved. While you don’t trust government to effectively monitor the industry, I don’t trust the industry to effectively monitor itself. That is, I think industries would eventually come around to the “right thing to do,” but the market makes slow adjustments and I feel like we don’t have the time to wait around for it.

I’m not sure I know how we bridge our fundamental divide. I will say, though, that I get the sense you’re talking about independent family-owned ranches while I’m talking about major corporate infrastructure, so again we may be back to comparing bison and cows…
-Ranjit

Comment by rarab

I will assume this post was successful because the main point of it was to start discussions about methane. I am so confused as to why we don’t talk about this greenhouse gas at all, while we spend so much time dealing with carbon dioxide.

Is this because that we can’t control methane emissions as much because they come from more natural/less human-induced places? Not true. The largest source is landfills, with natural gas production in second and cattle/grazing animals in third (from the ).

To me, it just seems like we have forgotten about methane purposefully because one of the top causes (meat) seems to be inherently ingrained into the American lifestyle, almost more so than having a car or forgetting who lives downstream.

Does anyone have other theories about why we don’t talk about methane?

Another low point of methane is its ability to combine with oxygen in the atmosphere…to form carbon dioxide and water. Wow, one greenhouse gas that begets two more. How much worse can we get?

-Lauren

Comment by Lauren Keith

My theory is we take methane for granted because it’s such a silent but deadly killer. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Perhaps we need a slogan to get people on board, something along the lines of:

Methane Stinks

Methane: It’s time we ALL dealt (with) it.

Methane: Quit farting around, people

I dunno, these are just some rough ideas…

Comment by rarab

This is a fascinating discussion… methane doesn’t get nearly the attention it should. Feedback loops produced by climate change may produce the greatest threat of all on this front: melting permafrost in Siberia could release billions of tons of methane into the atmosphere (though there are some uncertainties on concentrations, but the precautionary principle would seem to apply here).

As several of you have pointed out, using “landfill gas” as a source of energy is catching on quickly… nearby examples include the Noble Hill Landfill Renewable Energy Center in Springfield, Missouri (apologies for the self-indulgent linking… the original story seems to be gone). Others are extracting methane from animal wastes by using methane digesters (“poop to power” is one of my favorite topics to discuss… yeah, I know, that’s kind of weird). Jeff Goodell, in his book Big Coal, tells the story of a Chinese farmer using a digester to produce cooking gas for his home… first time he had access to such a luxury! Carbon offset company Terrapass now sells offsets created by the use of methane digesters, giving cattle ranchers and dairy farmers an economic incentive for better manure management (#5 on the “Human-Related Sources” list).

Of course, these processes will have to become much more widespread to make a significant dent in methane emissions, and there are still those damn melting peat bogs (and coal mining, and rice cultivation,etc.). In advocating for attention to this issue, though, these kinds of stories have the advantage of presenting “win-win” scenarios: a pollutant becomes a source of energy (and also creates no net gain in carbon emissions..).

Thanks for allowing me to join in… Ranjit, I vote for “Methane: Quit farting around, people…”

— Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

Comment by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

The issues surrounding animal agriculture you guys bring up are incredibly important… and incredibly thorny! Adam’s questions represent some of the most measured responses I’ve seen to arguments about the role meat production plays in climate change and other environmental issues: some of the most vitriolic comments I’ve seen at GO came in response to posts from a vegan educator and cook who wrote for us last year!

When advocating for a closer look at food choices, it’s important to remember that food is something that’s very personal for most people: it’s not just about sustenance and nutrition, but also about cultural, familial and personal identity. I really liked Sachiko’s approach to presenting vegetarianism as a “greener option”: making the suggestion to try it occasionally, and then providing a recipe (that sounds really good!). This kind of advocacy has a better chance of success (IMHO) because it doesn’t just say “this is a better choice” — it gives others some tools for exploring that choice…

Again, thank you for allowing me to jump in…

— Jeff

Comment by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg




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