Commentary: Cow farts and global warming

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) In this 2015 photo, cattle graze on Garfield County's Aquarius Plateau in the Dixie National Forest in Utah. Rural leaders in Utah who often chafe at how federal officials manage public lands are now also growing frustrated with state authorities who are increasing cancel grazing permits in favor of more-profitable land uses.

Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, global warming is becoming a bigger threat, and cow farts are partly to blame.

Methane from cows is a big contributor to the greenhouse effect, trapping 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide. In recent years, a report from United Nation’s Food mentioned that “methane from livestock accounted for 39 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” The expansion of meat production and raising livestock has significantly increased the number of cows being raised. More cows mean more methane, and more methane means warming of the planet.

To put the toxicity of methane in perspective, you would have to sit and idle your car for 21.3 hours a day in order to produce the same amount of gas as one cow does per day.

So, what can be done about this problem? Well, first, cows mainly live off eating grass, which not only inflicts damage to land that could be more efficiently used, but grass-eating cows produce more greenhouse gases than grain-eating cows do. If farmers were to switch to feeding their stock grain, rather than grass, the average amount of methane produced from the cattle would be significantly reduced.

Here in Utah, 11 million acres of land is used for agricultural purposes. Shifting cows away from a grass diet to a grain diet will help farmers use that land more efficiently. Furthermore, some farmers have begun to introduce a new feed to their cows that contains the same nutrients and proteins as grass, but that doesn’t upset the cows’ stomachs, thus preventing them from farting as much. The impact would be significant if all farmers would take this step.

One of the biggest factors leading farmers to feed their cows grass is that the “grass-fed beef” label appeals to consumers. People, when purchasing meat or ordering a hamburger, often prefer “grass-fed” because of an inaccurate marketing campaign that suggests that grass-fed meat tastes better. However, it is the nutrients, not the grass itself, that impacts the meat’s taste -- nutrients which grain also provides. Therefore, if all farmers shifted to grain, it would significantly decrease the amount of gas going into the atmosphere by reducing the methane the cows produce when eating grass.

Another solution to manage the methane being produced would be to have a Cow-Free day, in which people dedicate one day every month to not consuming any cow products. There are many benefits to having a Cow-Free day. These benefits include creating more land for growing populations, ending animal suffering and preventing gas from getting into the atmosphere.

It could also help solve the world’s hunger problem by freeing up much-needed resources currently being devoted to raising cows, from water to feed to excessive amounts of land. All of those resources could instead be redirected to produce food for people who are struggling with hunger.

Elizabeth Buff from One Green Planet Earth noted that “We currently produce enough calories to feed 10-11 billion people worldwide, however, the majority of this food goes to feed livestock, not hungry people.”

While the majority of these benefits would not be seen immediately, taking small steps like one day dedicated to Cow-Free consumption, will help hasten their arrival. In an article written by Dr. Joel Khan, he explains that if our whole country went Cow-Free for one day, we would save “100 billion gallons of water, 1.2 million tons of CO2, and 3 million acres of land.”

There are many ways to reduce emissions going into our atmosphere; whether they are big or small, they exist. Little acts like these can have a bigger impact than we often think. Imagine what the result would be if people went Cow-Free for a year, or if all farmers shifted to grains for feed. It could help end world hunger, prevent global warming from getting worse, create more land for the world’s endlessly growing population and end cow suffering. Small steps for big results.

Ian Brown and Olivia Fuhrman are high school seniors at Rowland Hall. They are participating in a writing project with Alliance for a Better Utah and live in Salt Lake City, Utah.