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How the Washington Post got it wrong on cow burps and greenhouse gases

August 6, 2015

3 Min Read
How the Washington Post got it wrong on cow burps and greenhouse gases

Climate change continues to be a hot topic in the news, and many consumers are keen to believe it’s livestock, not their own actions, that are contributing to any real or perceived environmental concerns our planet currently faces.

The notion that cattle are just big gas chambers creating smog over pastures is once again being promoted by the media; this time, it’s The Washington Post (WP). I recently read an article featured in WP titled, “How cleaner burps could help fight climate change.”

WP reporter Chris Mooney writes, “So-called ‘enteric fermentation’ in cows and other ruminant animals, like sheep and goats, contributed 26% of the country’s total emissions of methane, a hard-hitting greenhouse gas with much greater short term warming consequences than carbon dioxide does (though the latter packs a far greater long-term punch). Globally, meanwhile, methane emissions from livestock are an even bigger problem. Overall, the livestock supply chain emits 44% of the globe’s human caused methane, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — and a large slice of that comes from cattle’s methane burps. So anything you could do to cut down on cow belching would, literally, help save the planet. How fast is expansion going to happen?”

I’m more than a little disappointed that Mooney didn’t do more research before spewing statistics that are totally inaccurate. In fact, it’s long ago been pointed out that the 2006 FAO report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” misrepresents the livestock industry’s actual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

The report says livestock production accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; however, that number is actually a small 5.8% and includes not just livestock production, but the entire agricultural industry, according to Frank Mitloehner, an internationally-renowned authority on agricultural air quality, animal-environmental interactions, and environmental engineering at the University of California-Davis. What’s more, the EPA stated in 2009 that the vast majority of GHG emissions come from the use of fossil fuels and electricity, not livestock production.

READ: Clearing the air on cattle and the environment

Livestock-related greenhouse-gas emissions from 2006 add up to 181.9 teragrams of CO2 equivalent. And the EPA reports that the entire United States emitted 7,054.2 teragrams during that year. When doing the math, the greenhouse-gas sources directly related to livestock production in the United States only account for 2.58% of the total.

READ: Livestock’s shrinking U.S. shadow

When animal rights activists try to push Meatless Mondays for environmental reasons or someone feels righteous for skipping a burger while watching TV, using the lights or driving their vehicle, we should be equipped to share these figures on social media to help nix the idea that it’s cow burps, not people, who are contributing the most GHG emissions.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.


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