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Published on September 30th, 2017 | by Steve Hanley


Methane Emissions From Cows Worse Than Thought, + Some Solutions

September 30th, 2017 by  

Ruminants are animals with a large, four-chambered stomach designed by nature for the express purpose of digesting otherwise indigestible things from the plant world. Sheep and cows are perhaps the best known ruminants, but the group also includes goats, giraffes, antelope, deer, and yaks.

ruminant methaneOne of the byproducts of a ruminant’s digestive process is methane, and that’s a problem. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. Our beloved barnyard animals emit it in large quantities from both of their primary orifices (we’re trying to be delicate here). In fact, scientists estimate that methane from cows accounts for about 20% of all global methane emissions.

There are over 1.3 billion cows roaming the planet these days and every one of them can produce up to 120 kilograms of methane each year. For those who still don’t get the metric system, that is more than 250 pounds of methane from every one of those beasts.

If methane was not such an important factor in global warming, studies of cow emissions wouldn’t be needed. But it is that important, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Joint Global Change Research Institute, and the U.S. Department of Energy have just completed a study that shows the problem is worse than previously thought.

Prior estimates were based on outdated data that failed to account for the fact that today’s cows are larger and therefore eat more food, which means they produce more methane. Also, the manure from all those cows used to be spread on farmers’ fields as fertilizer, but today’s agribusinesses simply stores it in enormous piles, which ferment and produce even more methane.

But there may be a solution to this gaseous conundrum. In 2005, Joe Dorgan, a farmer in Prince Edward Island, Canada, noticed that cows that ate seaweed cast up by storms near their pens were healthier and produced more milk. Upon further investigation, it was found that they also had about 50% less methane emissions.

That discovery led to research by Canadian researchers Rob Kinley and Alan Fredeen, who confirmed that feeding seaweed to cows had a propitious effect on their methane production but that they needed to eat a diet that was about 20% seaweed for the results to be achieved.

Now scientists in Australia have discovered that red algae called Asparagopsis taxiformis can reduce methane gas production in cows by 99% and it only takes 2% of the stuff in their feed to work its magic. The only problem is, Australia would need over 15,000 acres of commercial seaweed farms to make enough of the red algae to feed just a tenth of its cows. The logistics involved make the idea untenable.

There is one other way to reduce methane emissions from ruminants, but it is so radical that it will be rejected out of hand by most. Stop eating beef. A revolution in plant-based foods that faithfully mimic the taste and feel of beef is occurring. Soon the need to have over a billion cows walking around burping and farting their way through life may be over. But hey, if you want to save the world, you may have to think outside the slaughterhouse.

Source: Forbes, Foodtank

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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His muse is Charles Kuralt -- "I see the road ahead is turning. I wonder what's around the bend?" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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