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Opinion: Death by farting cows?

Justin Morrison
FHSU student
Cows enjoying the summer temperatures in Inman, Kansas.

With the introduction of the New Green Deal in February of last year, the beef industry has suffered an onslaught of misinformation. While the proposal encompasses a wide array of issues, the one that everyone seems to hang up on is the evil “farting cow” and the “environmentally destructive” animal agriculture industry.

For those of us involved in animal agriculture, the term “farting cows” is pure nonsense. For those whose only knowledge of cattle comes from the slew of mainstream media misinformation, the farting cow and global warming crisis is an easy bandwagon to jump on. A large majority of people in animal agriculture are aware of climate change, but is the farting cow crisis something we should actually be concerned about? The answer is yes and no.

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a study titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which received widespread international attention. The study stated that livestock produced a staggering 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than all modes of transportation combined.

When the study came out, people everywhere were in disbelief. Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the University of California-Davis pointed out the flaw in a 2010 speech to colleagues. He found that the FAO took into consideration every factor associated with producing meat, including emissions from fertilizer production, converting land from forests to pastures, growing feed, and direct emissions from animals from birth to death, while they ignored impacts on the climate from manufacturing vehicle materials and parts, assembling vehicles and maintaining roads, bridges and airports and instead only considered the exhaust emitted by finished cars, trucks, trains and planes.

As a result, the FAO’s comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to those from transportation was greatly distorted. The FAO owned up to its error, but the initial claim had already received too much media attention. This flawed study has since been used over and over in the climate change conversation. So, what are the actual numbers?

A 2016 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency said that electricity production and transportation each accounted for 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Industry was responsible for 22 percent, while all of agriculture accounted for a total of 9 percent. All animal agriculture contributes less than half of this amount – 3.9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. These numbers are far less than transportation GHG emissions and further shows how outlandish the United Nations claims are.

To further debunk the concept of farting cows, we must know the anatomy of the animal itself and how they produce greenhouse gases. Cattle are ruminants, which have four compartments in their stomach. The largest compartment is the rumen, where fermentation occurs through the process known as rumination. When cellulose is broken down by rumen microbes, it produces acetic acid, with methane gas as a byproduct, which is released through eructation, or belching – not “farting” via the other end of the animal.

Methane is converted to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through a process called hydroxyl oxidation. While the process takes 10 years, the amount of methane in the atmosphere remains constant as new methane is created and old methane is destroyed. This is important because methane levels in the atmosphere stays stable as long as the livestock herd stays stable. This same concept is true for the carbon dioxide levels produced in methane destruction. Ultimately, no new carbon is added to the atmosphere.

On the other hand, new carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for almost a thousand years, and there is no process to equalize its production.

With all this being said, it does not mean that we should simply sit back and do only what is necessary to keep GHG levels stable. If you look to mainstream media for a solution, going vegan or artificial meat is all the craze these days. This, however, is not a solution. In fact, it is actually more detrimental to the environment.

A recent article in The Independent highlighted the results of a scientific study from the Oxford Martin School on the environmental effects of artificially produced meat. The study concluded that cultured meat was not necessarily climatically superior to cattle.

They reached their conclusion after examining various production methods for cultured meat and their energy demands. Further examination revealed that GHG emissions produced by the energy generation needed to produce cultured meat were far greater than the GHG emissions produced by livestock.

Many people continue to think that avoiding meat as infrequently as once a week will make a significant difference. But, according to a recent study conducted by Mitloehner and published in The Conversation, even if Meatless Monday were to be adopted by all Americans, we’d see a reduction of only 0.5 percent, and if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6 percent.

Instead of trying to eliminate animals from agriculture and meat from our diets, we should become informed about steps being taken by producers to lower GHG emissions. One way to reduce methane production is through feed additives known as ionophores, which work by reducing bacteria that break down cellulose into acetic acid plus methane, and boost the number of bacteria that produce propionic acid without methane. Both are metabolized by the animal. By feeding ionophores, producers increase efficiency as well as cut back on greenhouse gas.

New ways of reducing emissions are continually being researched. In a recent Penn State University study published on The Bullvine, a new feed additive known as 3-NOP inhibits an enzyme that is crucial to the final stage of methane synthesis in a cow’s rumen. It decreased methane emissions by 25 percent and boosted the cows’ feed efficiency.

Should we be more concerned about the farting cow crisis?

“No,” because the “farting cow” is debunked by a basic understanding of ruminant animals, and emissions of animal agriculture are far less than that of other industries or transportation and can be sustained at current levels.

“Yes,” because part of being a responsible producer revolves around how we care for the environment, understanding that we must do whatever it takes to leave the environment in the best possible condition for the next generation.

Doing so will ensure that producers will be able to continue their way of life and better themselves through the same determination and hard work that has pushed the industry through adversity time and time again.

Justin Morrison is a sophomore majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Clint and Loretta Morrison, Cimarron.