Cow Burps Are Warming the Planet


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If you grew up in suburbia like me, you might
not have ever considered the fact that cows
are pretty gassy creatures.
Just ask the German farmer who in 2014 had
to deal with a slight exploding shed problem,
thanks to his dairy cattle’s burps.
Turns out the thing that exploded was methane–aka
the natural gas that you might use to cook
your food.
And Bessie over here, can belch up something
like 200 to 600 liters of the stuff every
single day.
Methane is a product of the crazy digestive
system cows have–with four, yea four, stomachs.
Stomach number one is called the rumen, and
it’s home to a microbe zoo.
From protozoans to archaeans, you can find
practically every major kind of life in there.
Why?
Cellulose, the carbohydrate that makes plants
tough and fibrous, is technically impossible
for the cow to digest on its own.
Which is why it needs the help of all those
little microbe friends.
Some of them take the cellulose and break
it down into less complex molecules that the
cows can then digest.
The microbes release hydrogen gas and carbon
dioxide as waste products.
That hydrogen gas, if it were allowed to build
up, could interfere with further digestion,
because it’s actually toxic to the microbes.
So another group of microbes called methanogens
take the hydrogen and react it with CO2 to
produce methane.
The breakdown of cellulose is more efficient
when methanogens snap up that H2 right away.
The cow can’t use the methane, so it just
burps it out.
Which means it loses up to 10% of the energy
present in whatever grass or plant stuff it
just ate.
But it’s kinda amazing that it gets energy
from cellulose at all–thanks to that microbe
zoo.
Improperly ventilated barns aside, the real
reason to be worried about cow burps is that
methane is a nasty greenhouse gas.
Over a period of 100 years, one kilogram of
methane could potentially warm the Earth about
28 times as much as a kilogram of CO2.
And cows, along with other livestock, emit
many many kilograms of methane from their
burps — about this many in 2007.
That’s enough to make up about 7% of ALL
greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.
The planet is paying a high price for our
burgers and shakes.
So what can we do to save us from ourselves?
There are a couple of options: either cut
down the amount of methane the cows produce
in the first place, or find a way to capture
and use it.
People are experimenting with adorable backpacks
to collect cows’ gassy emissions.
And while this strategy isn’t widespread
yet, enough methane has been collected to
power an experimental city bus or two.
But it’s probably more efficient to stop
the burps in the first place.
And scientists have tried pretty much everything,
with mixed results.
One approach has been to vaccinate the cows
against their own gut microbes, persuading
their immune system to straight up murder
the methanogens.
Researchers have also supplemented cows’
feed with essential oils like garlic, peppermint,
and eucalyptus to aid their digestion.
And because the amount of methane a cow produces
seems to be inherited, some researchers are
on the hunt for a breeding fix, breathalyzing
cows to see who’s got the least methane
on their breath and sending the clean ones
off to have babies.
So there’s no shortage of creative solutions,
once we can actually put them into action.
Until then, enjoy your gassy half-pints and
exploding barns.
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27 comments

  1. Well now, you explained in the video that methane is combustible and that it's a greater global-warming hazard than carbon dioxide. I just read that carbon dioxide and water vapor are the two things produced when it's burned. It seems to me that this is at least a step in the right direction. Not by any means a solution, but a step toward one.

  2. When this issue first came to light people assumed (no pun intended) that this was a flatulence problem. But it turns out the burps are more to blame. No matter which end of the cow the methane comes out of, though, methane is still the problem here!

    Also, cows vaccinated against their gut methanogens don't totally stop producing methane — it just decreases a bit, in some studies at least.

  3. Has there been any research into using those methanogens to ferment lawn or farm wastes into biogas for semi-green energy production?

  4. We have only one solution right now that's actually practicable on a greater scale: eating less meat. There are so many problems associated with animal agriculture and animal feed production, the impact on climate change is only one of them (although a big one since it creates more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole transportation sector according to the FAO http://www.europarl.europa.eu/climatechange/doc/FAO%20report%20executive%20summary.pdf page 23).
    Others include health problems (red meat is considered a category 2 carcinogen by the WHO for example, not to mention cholesterol and saturated fat) and antibiotic resistance. Ocean deadzones are caused by manure that ends up in rivers. Growing massive amounts of animal feed causes deforestation of rainforests and habitat destruction in general. It's just terribly inefficient to feed our grains and soy to lifestock, we can eat it directly instead or use some of the land to grow other plants.
    If we consider ourselves an intelligent species we should do whats necessary to solve these problems, ignoring them will only work for so long and will cause incredible suffering in the long run. Avoiding animal products is probably the single greatest thing we can do as individuals to limit our impact on the environment and end factory farming just as a side effect. A few seconds of great taste are just not worth it if we're honest about it.

  5. Methane is a bad greenhouse gas, but fossil fuels are a bigger problem.
    The carbon in the methane that cows burp comes from grass and grass gets carbon from the air (it's a closed cycle that's been doing fine for millennia).
    Extracting fossil fuels and burning them adds carbon to the atmosphere and oceans; burping cows don't.

  6. What am I doing to stop the problem? I'm eating the cows!

    So, would this be considered human-sourced pollution if instead of cattle it was the natural heards of bison roaming in nature? Replace 'bison' with every other large land mammal that used to roam in N. America, Europe, Asia, Etc.

    How much methane do Elephants in Africa create? How much global warming have we prevented by poaching elephants and rhinos?

  7. The millions of bison that were here did not fart? Perhaps an SUV with a vacuum collected them so as not to warm the planet.

  8. Re: Cattle and Methane
    It is not the pastured cattle causing the problem. It’s those in feed lots being fed unnaturally. And there are other factors β€” watch three minutes of video starting at the 02:22 minute mark:
    Regenerative Agriculture-
    https://youtu.be/mMFNqaBXBwo

    Search:
    grass fed cattle regenerative agriculture methane

  9. Blame supply and demand for causing a demand for burgers, and hence Cattle Farming which leads to unsustainable practices including deforestation, environmental destruction caused by manure being run to the ocean, overpopulation and therefore more methane rather than blaming the cows.

    Established protocols and supporting every farmer to use sustainable practices may help to reduce greenhouse gases which is already happening I'd imagine, but obviously a solution that can suck methane and turn it into another energy could work better without harming the farmer, but then again that's solving one issue out of many.

    I guess the world needs innovative ideas and education to point people to put their money towards less destructive tendencies, and therefore not support companies that extract crude oil/fossil fuels which does hurt the environment which is the only effective way to stop it, apart from getting countries to pledge reducing gases, installing alternative energies like wind, solar, dam, setting up initiatives that encourage people to switch to solar.

    But it's hard to avoid supporting them. People own cars, cars need fuel. A lot of jobs require having a car otherwise the person cannot get the job. A car is essential for the survival of someone who needs work to earn money to survive.

    Some people ride bicycles which is good for the person's health and good for the environment. They catch the train and go to the city to their job, and then back.

    Whatever the solution, I guess it requires some sacrifices on what consumers get and it's going to be difficult but not impossible to change habits. Corporations also need to get more involved into doing what they can, and making it a continuous action.
    Innovation, science, ways to reduce greenhouse gases without badly hurting any industries will be a challenge but it's needed.

    Change starts with the consumer and how their money is spent. I guess looking at environmental problems like plastics, recycling and educating people to reduce their footprint is a start. Victoria, Australia ban plastics in November so retail companies are not allowed to stock them anymore as billions of plastic bags gets thrown into the ocean.

    Sorry for the essay, I'm just really passionate about this.

  10. Cows.. Ladies and gentlemen are not the only living creatures in this planet, unlike most of the idiocracy certain unhappy groups want everyone to believe, this planet it's been here "changing and changin" for millions of years, it is absolutely nothing we can do to change how our living planet evolves, nothing this group of arrogant dommies can do to stop that, if anyone believes that crap, belives in a fantasy created by the microscopic brain people who's only purpose is to profit with the ignorance of people

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