When I was in elementary school, I visited a farm on a fairly regular basis with my class as my school had a partnership with the farm. I had the opportunity to ride horses, make bread, apple juice, chase chickens and feed cows, even though I was terrified of them and absolutely hated the smell of the barn. Little did anyone in my class, including myself, realize that by feeding the cows we were indirectly contributing to the so-called greenhouse effect.
Did you know that livestock’s burps and farts release methane, which causes significant damage to the environment by contributing to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions? (FAO, 2013)
When I use the term “livestock”, it encompasses cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, basically animals that are raised to either produce edible products or for economic activity (FAO, 2013).
WHAT IS METHANE AND WHY IS IT HARMFUL?
Methane is a pollutant gas released by human activities such as by the energy and transportation sector, livestock and waste (Ravishankara, et al., 2021). Methane causes 30% of the temperature increase, also known as climate change (IEA, 2022). Over a two-decade period, methane appears to be heating the atmosphere 80 times more severely than carbon dioxide (UNEP, 2021).
A large part of emissions originates from the production of beef, accounting for 41% of the agriculture sector and cow’s milk, representing 20% of the industry’s emissions. Pigs are responsible for 9% of emissions, while poultry (meat and eggs) is the source of 8% of total sector’s output (FAO, 2013).
When digesting their food, cows generate methane. The volume of methane generated by livestock varies according to the quantity of animals, their digestive systems, and their food intake. Ruminants are the main source of methane emissions from livestock because they produce the greatest amount of methane per unit of feed consumed (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s Agriculture and Food, 2022). About 95% of the methane emitted by cows is discharged in the form of burps, while the remaining 5% is generated by flatulence (Torgovnick May, 2018).
SOLUTIONS AND IMPROVEMENTS TO BE IMPLEMENTED
The most effective solution to remedy this issue is to reduce methane emissions. One approach that researchers have discovered lies in the seaweed “Asparagopsis taxiformis”. The solution lies in adding a quantity of this specific seaweed to the feed of cows. This alga is able to reduce methane released by cows’ belching and intestinal gas to a level that is nearly inexistant, namely 1%. In addition, this alternative does not impact the meat and milk quality or productivity and health of the animals. The cattle are satiated with a lighter amount, thus cutting their feed consumption by 14%. This alternative also presents cost benefits for farmers as it is cheaper to use in the long term. This makes the agriculture and especially cattle raising more ecologically and financially sustainable (Roque, et al., 2021).
The current implications of methane on humans are pretty consequent, and thus switching to the alternative solution and cutting 45% methane emissions, representing 180 tonnes per year, would prevent a temperature rise of 0.3 C° by 2040. Furthermore, it would save 255,000 people from early death, avoid 775,000 hospital visits caused by asthma, prevent the loss of 73 billion work hours from exposure to intense temperatures and avoid the annual destruction of 26 million tons of harvests worldwide (Ravishankara, et al., 2021). Efforts to mitigate methane also support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as SDG 2 “Zero Hunger”, SDG 3 “Good Health and Well-being” as well as SDG 13 “Climate Action” (Ravishankara, et al., 2021).
Even though this solution is a good alternative, it does not solve the overproduction issue that humans cause. For instance, something I find horrifying is that farmers inseminate their cows to satisfy the demand for milk and meat. Cows should not be forced to give birth if they do not conceive naturally. Instead, wouldn’t it be simpler and more ethical to just reduce our meat consumption rather than trying to always find alternatives to solve the problems we are creating as humans, just for our own comfort, even though overconsuming meat does actually impact us negatively as it endangers our health (Westhoek, et al., 2015)?
Greenpeace European Unit (2020) disclosed that Europeans consume much more meat than needed and should cut their consumption by 70% until 2030 to ensure sustainability. This involves that individuals would consume the equivalent of 460 gm of meat, representing approximately 3 burgers a week, knowing that the current European average stands at 1.58 kg per week. The recommended level of meat consumption has been calculated wisely and would not put our health at risk.
I believe that by combining these two solutions, we could contribute to our present and future well-being. As in many other areas, it will be very complicated, if not impossible, to achieve total sustainability. However, in order to create a better world and, more importantly, to be part of it, every single individual on earth will be required to make efforts in terms of consumerism and each of us will be obliged to sacrifice our own comfort.
Azzopardi, B. (2019, January 29). Asparagopsis taxiformis (Rotalge). Retrieved from Atlantis Diving: https://www.atlantisgozo.com/de/asparagopsis-taxiformis-red-algae/
Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s Agriculture and Food. (2022, February 1). Carbon farming: reducing methane emissions from cattle using feed additives. Retrieved from Government of Western Australia: https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/climate-change/carbon-farming-reducing-methane-emissions-cattle-using-feed-additives#:~:text=The%20amount%20of%20methane%20emitted,per%20unit%20of%20feed%20consumed.
FAO. (2013). Tackling Climate Change through Livestock. A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome: FAO. Retrieved from https://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf
Greenpeace European Unit. (2020, March 13). EU climate diet: 71% less meat by 2030. Retrieved from Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/nature-food/2664/eu-climate-diet-71-less-meat-by-2030/#:~:text=Brussels%20%E2%80%93%20Meat%20consumption%20in%20the,to%20new%20analysis%20by%20Greenpeace.
IEA. (2022, February 23). Global Methane Tracker 2022. Retrieved from IEA: https://www.iea.org/reports/global-methane-tracker-2022
NZAGRC. (2019). The science of methane. Retrieved from New Zealand agricultural greenhouse gas research centre: https://www.nzagrc.org.nz/domestic/methane-research-programme/the-science-of-methane/
Ravishankara, A. R.;Kuylenstierna, J.C.I.; Michalopoulou, E. ; HöglundIsaksson, L.; Zhang, Y.; Seltzer, K.; Ru, M.; Castelino, R.; Faluvegi, G.; Naik, V.; Horowitz, L.; He, J.; Lamarque, J. F.; Sudo, K.; Collins, W. J.; Malley, C.; Harmsen, M.; Stark, K.; Junkin, J.; Li, G.; Glick, A. & Borgford-Parnell, N. (2021, May 6). Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions. Retrieved from UNEP: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/35913/GMA.pdf
Roque, B. M., Marielena, V., Kinley, R. D., De Nys, R., Duarte, T. L., Yang, X., & Ermias, K. (2021, March 17). Red seaweed (Asparagopsis taxiformis) supplementation reduces enteric methane by over 80 percent in beef steers. Retrieved from PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0247820&type=printable
Steve, G. (2015, October 9). Can we make cow burps climate-friendly? Retrieved from European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/research-and-innovation/en/horizon-magazine/can-we-make-cow-burps-climate-friendly
Torgovnick May, K. (2018, September 27). IDEAS.TED. Retrieved from Methane isn’t just cow farts; it’s also cow burps (and other weird facts you didn’t know about this potent greenhouse gas): https://ideas.ted.com/methane-isnt-just-cow-farts-its-also-cow-burps-and-other-weird-facts-you-didnt-know-about-this-potent-greenhouse-gas/
UNEP. (2021, August 20). Methane emissions are driving climate change. Here’s how to reduce them. Retrieved from UNEP: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/methane-emissions-are-driving-climate-change-heres-how-reduce-them
Westhoek, H., Lesschen, J.P., Leip, A., Rood, T., Wagner, S., De Marco, A., Murphy-Bokern, D., Pallière, C., Howard, C.M., Oenema, O. & Sutton, M.A. (2015). Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment. (C. H. Sutton, Ed.) Retrieved from INMS: https://www.inms.international/sites/inms.international/files/Nitrogen_on_the_Table_Report_WEB.pdf