Cow farts!


Argentine scientists are strapping plastic tanks to the backs of cows.  (Reuters)

Argentine scientists are strapping plastic tanks to the backs of cows. (Reuters)

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like. Scientists in Argentina—one of the world’s leading producers of beef—are studying bovine flatulence as part of that nation’s effort to combat global warming. According to Rupert Neate, for the Telegraph:

The Argentine researchers discovered methane from cows accounts for more than 30 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse emissions ....

.... Guillermo Berra, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, said every cow produces between 800 to 1,000 litres of emissions every day.

Neate also notes that methane “is 23 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. According to Silvia Valtorta of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Investigations, a diet of clover and alfalfa instead of grain would cut a quarter of the methane out of the farts of Argentina’s fifty-five million cows.

And hey, that’s a 7.5% reduction of the country’s greenhouse emissions right there.

Another thing to consider: fifty-five million cows eating clover and alfalfa instead of grain. I wonder if that grain could then go to hungry people? After all, cattle are in the sights of the Hollywood set. As Bill Maher pointed out earlier this year:

And, could I add one more thing that starves people? Eating meat. Because the amount of grain it takes to feed the cattle, when you eat that high up on the food chain, it starves people lower on the food chain. It takes an enormous amount of resources to make a pound of meat.

So fifty-five million cows. That’s a lot of grain. But as I noted last month:

In a time when basic necessities are brought into such sharp focus, we cannot turn our backs on celebrity moralizing or utilitarian analysis simply because it seems trendy or cold. But I do think there are aspects of the meat question that tread back to the problem of priorities.

When I was in ninth grade, our school attempted to incorporate some economics into our social studies curriculum. It was a disaster, as near as I can recall …. Nonetheless, one factoid that stuck with me over the years is that even in our corner of the Universe, in the farm country east of the Cascades, large quantities of grain were going to waste; small mountains of wheat, for instance, going to waste because nobody bought it.

And while many of the lessons of my youth—in this case, my father’s explanation of news media content, “Somebody’s gotta pay for it”—will haunt me to my dying day, something about that wasted grain has always bothered me ….

…. What I’m getting at is that while a crusade against eating meat will certainly make some short-term differences in the availability of some grains, this sort of pop-culture grasping after straws will not have much impact in the long term. After all, somebody’s gotta pay for it.

So while there’s a potential two-for-one bonus to be found in changing the diets of Argentine cattle, can that benefit be actualized? Will the grain formerly consumed by the cattle be suitable for human consumption? Will the acreage devoted to growing grain for cattle be used to feed people?

Just a thought. Obviously, nothing is ever so simple. After all, it’s 2008, and we’ve cornered ourselves such that we have to take cow farts seriously.

Write your own punch line. Make me laugh. Please.

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