Monday, March 9, 2015

The Winds of Change

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, the methane gas produced by cattle is acknowledged as a major contributor to  climate change:

Emissions of two important heat-trapping gases from agriculture account for about 6 percent of total global warming emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Beef production contributes about a third of those emissions, or roughly 2.2 percent of the total. 

"Emissions?" That would be farts. Cow farts, to be exact. Hilarious, yes, but also a very real threat to the environment. By contrast, pigs produce 6 kilograms of greenhouse gases and poultry releases only 4, (who measures this stuff and how...??) compared to cattle's 32 kilograms for the same amount of meat. Switching to poultry and pork reduces 80 to 90% of the emissions that you would eliminate by stopping your meat intake entirely. 

Like I said, this dangerous cow farting business is accepted wisdom in the scientific community, and has been for a while now. I'm not going to dispute that. However, I find I am not without questions about it, and I think a lot of other people have similar questions, too, so why not take time on this Meatless Monday to take a look at them?

Question 1: If cow farting is such a huge threat, why didn't the buffalo do us in long ago? After all:
In prehistoric times, millions of these animals roamed the North American Continent from the Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, south into Mexico and from coast to coast. No one knows how many bison there were, but the naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, estimated their numbers at sixty million when Columbus landed. They were part of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known. 
Lewis and Clark commented in 1806 that in what later became South Dakota "The moving multitude . . . darkened the whole plains." Others wrote that, when viewing a herd from a distance, it appeared the entire prairie was in motion. Army major Richard Dodge commented as late as 1871 that it took five days to pass one herd. 

Now that's a lot of buffalo. So how did we survive all that bison gas?

Question 2: Why does the blame, it seems, always get put on beef cattle? What about dairy cows? Do they not fart? Let's take a look at the graph:

McDonalds uses meat in their hamburgers? Who knew??

To review: even at their peak numbers, there weren't as many buffalo in North America in 1492 as there are cattle in the U.S. right now. And dairy cows? It's not that they aren't farting and contributing to greenhouse gases--they are. It's just that their numbers are so few in relation to beef cattle that focusing on them isn't worth doing. 

Another numerical fun fact: according to the latest census, the population of the U.S. in 2014 was 318.9 million people. If the 95 million total head of cattle were counted within that number as people, a little under 1 in 3 of us would be cows.

Back to the question of the buffalo. If, at sixty million, they were "part of the largest community of wild animals that the world has ever known", why didn't their farting jump-start climate change back when Columbus was sailing the ocean blue?

Tune in next Meatless Monday for the answer to that question, and more!

Thanks again to Big Sister Marsha, RN, MNS, for suggesting this topic!


Cows and Climate Change PDF


Beef Industry Statistics

Wikipedia Dairy Cattle

Go Indie: McDonald's Statistics

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