In today’s installment of “life is stranger than fiction,” I discuss the impact of cow and sheep burps on global warming and how scientists are solving the bovine burping crisis
We have been told that human consumption of meat is a significant contributor to climate change (it is) but given no solution other than not eating meat (not a real solution).
Scientists say that cow and sheep burps emit vast amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere and change the climate.
Too Good To Be True?
Yes…I know that this sounds too incredible to be true. But it is.
Fortunately, there are relatively simple solutions to the emerging bovine burping crisis that I expect will make an impact in the next few years. And these solutions do not require giving up burgers or steaks.
The Problem – Cows and Sheep Burp Out a Lot of Methane
According to the University of California-Davis, cows are the #1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide and are responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gases and 44% of all methane emissions. Methane is 28 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, so this is a big deal.
Cows and sheep emit methane when they burp, and cows and sheep burp a lot.
While the statistics are somewhat inconsistent, it is clear that globally methane is responsible for a large share of global warming (estimates are as high as 30% of all global warming), and livestock, such as cattle and sheep, are the biggest contributor (approximately 1/3 of all methane emissions).
Basically, a cow has the same global warming effect as a car.
According to Greener Grazing (more on them later), “[l]livestock production’s climate impact is greater than all of the world’s cars, planes and ships combined.”
I find the statistics unbelievable and easily discounted. After all, cows and sheep have been around for a long time. Why is it only in the last decade or so that anyone has identified them as a problem? I freely admit that this sounds like a “woke” problem that is made up by environmentalists who want to change everything about our lives.
However, Science Is Science, Even If We Don’t Like Or Understand It…
The cow and sheep burping problem has gotten a lot worse because of two human factors.
First, globally, there are many more people eating meat than ever before in human history.
And second, particularly in Asia, humans are eating a lot more meat per person.
So, we have more people eating more meat per person and, as a result, there are billions more cattle and sheep than ever before in human history. Current herd sizes are estimated to be 1.5 billion cattle and 1.2 billion sheep, and herd sizes are expected to double in the next few years.
The Solution – Feed Seaweed To Cow and Sheep Diets So They Don’t Burp
Researchers have discovered that cows and sheep won’t burp if they are fed small amounts of seaweed (approximately 1% of total feed). Fewer burps mean less methane gas going into the atmosphere.
Some researchers believe that the methane reduction is 50%, while other studies suggest up to a 99% decrease. But, all researchers agree that adding “a pinch” of seaweed to cattle diets has a dramatic effect.
Farmers have an economic incentive to add seaweed to cow and sheep diets because steers fed seaweed had much higher weight gain than steers feasting on their standard diet of grass and grains. The additional weight gain is more than 35%, which is a lot of extra profit for farmers.
What’s Holding Back Cows and Sheep From Being Fed Seaweed?
It turns out that only a single species of seaweed works to cut cattle methane emissions.
This particular type of seaweed is found in Australian offshore waters and does not naturally grow anywhere else.
Worse, globally, there isn’t much of this type of seaweed, and billions of tons will need to be grown, harvested, and fed to cows and sheep to make a difference. None of this supply chain currently exists.
However, several companies, including Greener Grazing (www.greenergrazing.org), are working on commercially farming this specific type of seaweed and are ramping up for global production. The Greener Grazing website has a great video explaining the issue and their seaweed farming solution.
It will take several more years before enough seaweed is grown close enough to cattle ranches to make a difference. But, sooner or later, seaweed will be a staple of cattle diets.
What You Need To Know…
Methane emissions from cattle and sheep are a real problem.
However, like most human challenges, there are solutions to the problem that do not require us to change our diets or avoid eating meat.
The most likely solution to the bovine burping crisis is small amounts of seaweed in cattle diets and commercial seaweed farming entrepreneurs are working on the solution.
So, it is only a matter of time before we will be able to eat steaks, burgers, and lamb chops without climate guilt.