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Researchers calculate greenhouse gas emissions of cows consuming vegetation that would otherwise burn.

February 8, 2024

4 Min Read
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California’s cattle ranchers contribute a significant amount to the region’s culture, economy and food supply, but do they also inadvertently help to temper the wildfires that have been plaguing the state? And if so, is it a better alternative – environmentally speaking – to letting grasslands burn?

A new study published in the journal Sustainability delves into the topic, weighing the advantages – and disadvantages – grazing cattle bring to the table. Researchers, including a cohort from University of California, Davis, set out to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions of cows consuming vegetation that would otherwise burn in wildfires. Then they estimated the GHG emissions that would result should that forage be untouched and therefore, consumed by fire, eventually comparing the two.

Feeling the burn

Given the severity of California’s recent wildfires and the belief they will continue and even escalate in the near future, it’s a discussion worth having, says Frank Mitloehner, an expert in animal agriculture and air quality from UC Davis, director of the CLEAR Center and one of the researchers who contributed to the peer-reviewed article.

“Each year from 2010 to 2020, California lost on average 89,000 acres of grassland to wildfires,” he says. “In addition to the obvious disruption and devastation they caused, the fires spewed greenhouse gases and harmful particulate matter such as black carbon into the air and into our atmosphere. Those alone threaten climate health and human well-being.”

A fast and furious gas

Cattle are adept at eliminating herbaceous fuel as they graze. However, at the same time, their specialized digestive system produces methane that is expelled most often in the form of enteric emissions … more commonly known as belches. By way of background, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide over 100 years. But it’s only in the atmosphere for 10 to 12 years after it’s emitted. Following that, it’s broken down into carbon dioxide and water vapor.

For that reason, Mitloehner refers to methane as a “fast and furious” gas. Furious because it warms with a vengeance and fast because it does so for only a short time, especially when compared to carbon dioxide. Furthermore, because of the biogenic carbon cycle, whereby plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, the warming of methane and its byproducts can end entirely when it’s hydrolyzed and used by plants.

How researchers calculated emissions

In order to determine if grazing, methane-emitting cattle are better for the atmosphere than burning grasslands, Mitloehner and the other researchers employed a method known as “Monte Carlo simulation,” a mathematical technique used by scientists to predict outcomes of an uncertain event.

Looking exclusively at methane emissions, they found it’s better to have cows eat vegetation than to have wildfires burn it. Granted, it’s only marginally better, but when one considers other advantages of animal agriculture and conversely, other disadvantages of widespread, uncontrolled fire, the conversation suddenly shifts.

“Even if cattle provided no other benefit to us, which certainly is not true, we can now make the case that they are helpful to us in yet another way,” Mitloehner says.

Friends or foes?

It goes without saying that one would be hard pressed to find much good to say about wildfires, but that doesn’t hold true for animal agriculture. The industry provides jobs and supports the economy in other ways as well. Plus, it is a major source of protein-rich food that is in increasing demand as the world’s population continues on a trajectory toward 10 billion people by the year 2050.

Where global warming is concerned, the industry is in the unique position of being able to reach net-zero warming, also known as climate neutrality, if it continues to aggressively chip away at its methane emissions, which Mitloehner asserts is of critical importance to the planet. “Few other sectors can reduce its warming to net zero and still be of service to society, but agriculture can because of the way methane behaves in the atmosphere,” he says.

To be clear, grazing cows are no match for wildfires. Yet, in addition to everything else the sector does for us, slowing the burn and keeping relatively more methane from entering the atmosphere are not nothing.

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