Getting to the bottom of Greenhouse Gasses: Part 1

23 Mar

The Beef industry has a big problem.

No, I’m not talking about runoff, or animal cruelty, or even E.Coli contamination.

I’m talking about cow burps.

Yep, our cattle burp, and it’s a bit of a problem.

You see, cattle are ruminants, which means that they have 4 stomachs instead of just one like a pig or a human.  In their largest stomach, the rumen, they break down grass into a more easily digestible form.  This is all well and good, but a few of the bajillions of bacteria in that live in their rumen have a bad habit of emitting methane, which the cow burps up, and breathes out into the air.

This process is called enteric fermentation, and it is a big part of why the beef industry is a big contributor to climate change.

So what’s the big deal with greenhouse gas emissions from cattle?

Well, lets just get the whole climate change thing out of the way first.

Yes, it’s really happening. And no, it’s not good.

And, yes, we owe it to future generations to:

1.) Quit making the problem worse by leveling off our greenhouse gas emissions.

2.) Start making it better by reducing our emissions and sequestering as much carbon as we can.

So lets try to first understand the scope of the problem.

Beef production emits 3 kinds of gasses that contribute to global warming. The first and most obvious is Carbon Dioxide (CO2).  CO2 is emitted by cattle (or any animal for that matter) every time they breathe.  Thankfully, that’s not a big contributor to global warming.  Emissions from trucks, tractors, farm equipment and fertilizer production is another matter.

Methane (CH4) is the second kind of gas, and quite a big offender as greenhouse gasses go.  If carbon dioxide traps 1 unit of heat in the atmosphere, methane traps 20 units of heat. So Methane is 20 times worse than CO2.  The good news is that enteric fermentation (cow burps) are the only significant source of Methane from cattle.  The bad news is that so far it’s kinda hard to get rid of enteric fermentation.

Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is the third kind of gas produced by cattle.  Nitrous Oxide is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.  It’s at least 200 times worse than plain-ol’ CO2. Fortunately, Nitrous Oxide is mainly produced by the decay (oxidation) of cow manure.  For cows out on pasture, this isn’t a big deal.  Their cow pies fall right to the ground, and over half of the nitrogen goes into the ground to grow more plants.  The big N2O problems arise when animal poop is held in giant retention ponds where it can’t get back to the ground so more of it oxidizes and goes into the air.

Now the UN came out with a big report about all of this a few years back. The report is called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and it has some sobering things to say about livestock and our environment.  Namely, that livestock are:

one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” and that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation.


Now don’t go swearing off meat just yet.  There is actually good news in that UN report, and we’ll get to that (and so much more!) in Part 2.

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