The man in the street would laugh (and is laughing) at such a preposterous statement, but all over the Internet you can find statements like this: “The most important conclusion for ourselves is: Eat much less meat and dairy products. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint and to generally reduce our personal negative impact on the environment.”
According to a four-hundred-page report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, the world’s 1.5 billion cattle are most to blame for global warming. “Livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.”
Here’s another: “So as weather patterns become more and more chaotic, blame the burgers, steaks, ribs, sausage, and other products of the massively overpopulated cows across the globe [fact check: sausage is made from pigs, not cows]. Sure, cracking down on coal may be part of the fix. But there is a long-term solution to climate change that everyone can do right now: get the animals off our plates.”
The original version of representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” resolution calls for “a world War II-style mobilization effort to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural operations. . . We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in ten years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” (Ocasio-Cortez staffers have since removed the word “farting” from the fact-sheet.) With rubbish like this coming from Congress, can vegetarianism by fiat (and a ban on airplane travel) be far behind?
Methane has the chemical formula CH4 (one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen). Methane is the main component of natural gas; it is also created by certain types of bacteria that break down plant matter—whether inside or outside of a cow.
A quick search of the internet reveals that the largest source of atmospheric methane is wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, peatlands, etc.) (Strange, but the Environmental Protection Agency is committed to preserving wetlands and even increasing them!) Another big contributor is rice paddies. (Is that why the latest EAT-Lancet report doesn’t mention rice as a staple food?)
Here’s a graph showing sources of atmospheric methane. As you can see, animal agriculture (including pigs, chickens and cows) contributes at most 13 percent, assuming that all these theories are correct.
Since cows break down vegetable matter in their rumens, the methane created escapes out of one end or the other. Cows are a convenient target for meddling bureaucrats since no one dare propose filling in wetlands or forbidding rice production (or cutting down rain forests or getting rid of termites, which are other significant sources of methane).
According to lots of highly trained scientists, the Earth’s atmospheric methane concentration has increased by about 150 percent since 1750, and it accounts for 20 percent of the total “radiative forcing” from all of the long-lived and globally mixed greenhouse gases. The other main two greenhouse cases are nitric oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane actually breaks down much more quickly than the other two.
Here’s the main chart on the Internet showing the increase of atmospheric methane in parts per billion:
According to climate scientists, this increase in methane is a main cause of global warming and who am I to argue? However, I do have just one question. If the increase in methane is causing global warming, how come this graph (flat until recent times, and presumably flat pre-1750) has no relation to the actual temperature trends over the last several hundred years, including the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age?
Worldwide the number of cows has remained stable over the last seven years, yet methane is still increasing. Hmmm. . . another inconvenient fact.
Now consider this: prior to 1700, wild ruminants covered the North American continent. Estimates range as high as seventy million bison (which are larger than cows and therefore produce more methane per animal), thirty million elk, forty million deer and twenty million pronghorn sheep—numbers that exceed the current ruminant population in the U.S. Moreover, there were sixty to four hundred million beavers creating dams, ponds and wetlands throughout the continent. Most of these wetlands are gone now—by some estimates 95 percent less today than before colonization—all producing methane, yet atmospheric methane is said to be increasing today, an anomaly that leads one to question assumptions about methane levels in the past
There are a lot of good Internet discussions about what is causing the rapid increase in methane during the last few decades; one culprit may be shale gas production. But for sure it’s not cows. So you can enjoy your hamburger—preferably a grass-fed burger—without any qualms about destroying the planet. Why is grass-fed better in terms of climate change arguments? Because well-nourished pasture is a big sink for carbon, thus reducing the really long-lived so-called greenhouse gas.
However, the global warming folks are not likely to give in to rational discussion any time soon, and it’s easy to see the handwriting on the wall. Governments will encourage confinement systems of dairy and beef production so the methane can be captured and turned into natural gas. There will be lots of grants and other incentives to the corporate farms to help them do this. But the cows raised outdoors will remain targets since it’s harder for the small farmer to fight back. Look for proposals to tax grass-fed cows coming soon.