Fighting Bovine Flatulence

Cows get little respect these days. Except, of course, when cow is in the form of a two-inch-thick steak cooked medium-well and served still sizzling from the grill. Others prefer their beef served in a sack passed through a window. Either way, your favorite serving of beef is under attack.

First came the revelation that cows are eating us out of house and home. In another anti-meat lovers report, NPR’s Morning Edition in a segment called, “What It Takes to Make a Hamburger” reported that it takes 5.7 pounds of grains and forage, 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land for herds and feed crops, and 1,036 Btus of energy to power equipment to produce a quarter-pound hamburger.

Next, ABC reported that global warming concerns should prompt each of us to eat less beef.

The point of the ABC and NPR reports was that with about 30 million cows in the U.S., that’s a lot of feed, land, and energy used to keep us in Bonus Jacks and Quarter-Pounders. I get that. However, burgers (and choice steaks) remain big business. It’s estimated that 14 billion MacDonald’s hamburgers alone are consumed in the U.S. each year.

The vegetarians and vegans among us (including Morgan Spurlock, the subject and producer of the documentary Super Size Mewere soon hailed as saving the environment, the economy, and promoting healthy lifestyles.

And then researchers began calculating the true cost of meat production to show how bad it was for the planet. Cows were getting nervous and tried to deflect the unwanted attention.

Eat Chicken

Environmental regulators were the next group to begin sniffing about and predictably concluded that cow flatulence accounts for about 20% of global annual methane emissions, about 5.5 million metric tons per year. The United Nations estimates that cow flatulence produces more GHGs than driving cars. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that 14.5% of all human-caused GHG releases are associated with the bovine food chain.

The EPA, never missing an opportunity to regulate something new, doubled down on the UN estimates by finding that cows (actually ruminant livestock, predominantly cows) produce 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. Hordes of protesters took to the streets to express their outrage with those eating meet.

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And now we learn from a new research report that the EPA’s estimates were still too low–methane emissions from cows may be twice the EPA’s estimates. I expect the next study will link cow flatulence with causing glacier melts and producing tropical storms.

Researchers have offered a number of solutions to solve the problem of bovine flatulence ranging from improving herd efficiency (meaning fewer, more “meaty” cows) to labeling schemes to “help consumers and producers to better align their consumption and production preferences with the emission profiles of these commodities.” Another suggestion was a “beneficiary pays” mechanism in which abatement subsidies and carbon credit markets are put in place to reduce methane emissions from cows. Other financial incentives suggested are an emissions tax and tradable emissions permits.

One enterprising blogger has suggested the form of an cow fart emissions certificate.

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I suppose one day in the not too distant future having a nice steak at Outback will require advance trading of CFU emissions certificates or evidence of having paid the emissions tax. That will do wonders for the digestion.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s consulting editor