Beef, with a side of methane

Cattle's gassy secret is making the planet sweat. Time to call out the cow Gas-X.

Holly Lahd

In our worldwide fight against global warming, we need to target all contributors: power plants, automakers, oil companies and Ö cows. Yes, the sedentary animals that have their own sculptures on the St. Paul campus and add their own unique smell to the world have a problem of global significance.

Most people probably don’t put cows in their top five of

global warming polluters, but this fixture on the farm has a gassy secret: Cows burp a lot. Along with the smell, methane is the greenhouse gas that makes the byproducts of cows a danger to the climate.

Carbon dioxide is the most famous greenhouse gas, but methane is 21 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. That means that it takes less methane to do the same harm as carbon dioxide. Cows are believed to be responsible for 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The average cow emits 280 liters of methane per day. With approximately 97 million head of cattle in the United States, it’s easy to see this is more than a problem of hot air.

The other byproduct from cows, cow poop, is also rich with methane. This methane can be captured from the waste in an anaerobic digester, however, and turned into usable natural gas. This emerging tool has a hefty price tag, but it can turn manure into money for farmers.

Recently researchers at the University of Hohenheim in Germany announced an agricultural breakthrough that could save the planet: A pill to help cows digest the methane and, in turn, reduce the belching. In short, this Gas-X for cows might help save the planet. The fist-sized pill full of plant material, combined with a higher quality and lighter diet, reduces the amount of methane burped by cows.

This reduction in methane helps the planet and also puts more money back in dairy farmers’ pockets. That’s because methane is essentially feed energy that, if better digested by cows, could be used to produce more milk. A study by researchers at the

University of Manitoba found that between 2 and 12 percent

of feed energy consumed by cattle is lost in the form of methane.

When you have gas, what does your doctor tell you to do? Eat differently and take some Tums. And with cows, it isn’t much different.

So we can change a cow’s diet by giving it some cow-

formulated Gas-X. But isn’t there is a simpler solution to our bovine flatulence problem? How about having fewer cows in general? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, total

U.S. beef consumption was a whopping 28 billion pounds in 2006.

With a population of just more than 301 million people, that equates to an average of 93 pounds of beef per person per year.

That number seems astonishingly high, but not unbelievable in our supersized society. Eighth-pound hamburgers became

quarter pound, then half pound. Being overweight is now the norm, and the resulting heart disease rates attest to our national love affair with meaty diets. But while we get fat, our planet gets hot.

While we Americans might soon reach our limit on increasing beef consumption, the rest of the world hasn’t. As people in China grow more prosperous and adopt Americanized consumption habits, their meat intake will undoubtedly rise to our level.

So while we examine our driving habits and light bulbs, ignoring the impact of the food on the plate would be a mistake. This column is about the methane from cows. When we take into account the transportation emissions from getting the food to the table and emissions from processing the food, it can really make that steak not quite as appealing.

With these things in mind, if you can go vegetarian or vegan, great. But if not, maybe just skip one hamburger a week. Or in the very least, simply rethinking the view that meat should always be the centerpiece of our meal would do a lot of good.

For me, growing up in the 1990s, the advertisement “Beef:

It’s what’s for dinner” was a constant on television. Set to Composer Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown,” the ad by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association promoted beef for family dinners

and helped the beef industry thrive. But meanwhile, the cows

remain gassy. If this ad were to be resurrected for the 21st century, perhaps instead of “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” a more apt slogan is “Beef with a side of methane – it’s what’s for dinner!”

Whoa, Bessy.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]