Do Cows Cause Global Warming?

One popular argument for avoiding meat is the premise that cows emit methane in their burps and farts and for this reason are contributing to global warming.

Do Cows Cause Global Warming?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.

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Global Methane SourcesSince 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:

CH4 Concentration 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?

The Little Ice AgeBut leaving this inconvenient fact aside, let’s focus on the cows. There are approximately ninety million cows in the U.S. today, down from a high of about one hundred forty million in 1974.

USCattlePopulationByYearWorldwide the number of cows has remained stable over the last seven years, yet methane is still increasing.  Hmmm. . . another inconvenient fact.

CH4 Global Monthly MeanNow 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.

The Weston A. Price Foundation advocates a mixed diet that includes pasture-raised animal products like beef, pork, raw milk, cheese, eggs and poultry.  Become a member  and support the work we do.



5 thoughts on “Do Cows Cause Global Warming?”

  1. Thank you for contributing to a more logical perspective!

    There’s an additional perspective (on what some refer to as “climate change”) that presents very interesting cosmological changes throughout the rest of our solar system, inclusive of the earth – all in relation to the sun as the main driver for climate. I like to include that as well! Especially since the sun has its cycles that directly impact on earth!

    A greater all-inclusive picture is now being formed as to how our climate is co-created. The more that picture becomes known the more the pronouncements of “the global warming folks” will simply evaporate under the more radiant and brighter light of truth!

    I see the urgent need for supporting “the small farmer”. The need has been apparent to me for well over the past decade since the raw milk raids under color of law with overwhelming deadly force. When our local community lost a small farm in 2011 that motivated me to enroll as a student of the Organic Laws as taught by Lawyer-professor Ed Rivera who founded the “Organic Laws Institute.”[1] I understand how it is possible to say “it’s harder for the small farmer to fight back.” This is much like “David and Goliath.” I think we would agree that today’s “Goliath”/giant/s are the most-dominant food & chemical-ag corporations.

    Then there is another giant known as “government.” It will be a truly glorious day when “the small farmer” essentially re-discovers the Organic Laws and understands what each of these four most-foundational Laws say about every American’s Lawful relationship to government – especially concerning the Lawful limits to government regarding what government can tax! The only way that “the small farmer” can pay a grass-fed cow tax is essentially by voluntarily donating a self-assesed contribution – unless the farmer is milking government cows on government property. The Organic Laws positively show how this is so. Its about time that America came back home by returning to the real Law!


  2. There is no logic behind the climate claims of those pushing the vegetarian agenda, which by the way, is very lucrative. Methane is indeed increasing; it is one of the unstoppable feedback mechanisms driving global warming exponentially higher. The climate warms, the permafrost thaws, methane is released, the climate warms, more permafrost melts, the climate warms even more and on and on. And people continue to buy, whatever is being sold. One grass-fed cow requires much less energy then acres of soybeans or lentils which have to be grown in fields requiring fertlization, pest control, cultivation etc. Forget the third world small farmers sustainable practices , all the vegetarian manufactured meat alternatives are sourced from plants grown by corporate farms.. Connect the dots. Educate yourself. Reacquaint yourself with reality.

    1. Here is some reality: Carbon in the atmosphere has been decreasing over time (which is bad), finally thanks to humans, the carbon in the atmosphere is being replenished.

  3. As far as the methane emissions from cattle research has shown they are environmentally neutral. Research had been done on cattle and it seems not alot of people are spreading it around cause many activists don’t actually eat alot of meat to start with. It is easy to blame it on something that does not effect you. Driveing large vehicles and going on multiple trips around the world, shipping everything from across the world for local consumption or from factories on the other side of the world have a far greater effect on what everyone says is causing “global warming”.
    Rotting vegetation equivalent to what cattle digest created the same amount of methane gasses as cattle did by digestion.


  4. Isn’t it true grain fed cows emit more methane than cows that graze in pastures? Another argument for grass fed cows.

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