Meat-Free Monday: The Problem With Cow Burps...
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Today’s bitesize thought nugget: the cow dilemma.
Cows are adorable, but dangerous.
It’s not their fault. It’s their burps.
Cows don’t so much digest their food as they ferment it. A side effect of this process is that they release methane - a powerful greenhouse gas contributing to the climate crisis. One cow can produce up to 200kg of methane a year, and there are approximately 9.6 million cattle in the U.K.
That’s a lot of burps.
It equates to about 10% of the UK’s climate heating emissions.
10% may not sound like much but it’s one of the bigger challenges the UK faces in becoming carbon neutral by 2050, alongside the impact of the aviation industry. As the population continues to increase and the demand for meat continues to grow, this will only become more problematic. Even as some question it's importance compared to aviation and industry, can we just ignore it?
‘What can we do about it?’, I hear you ask. 'And do we really have to give up hamburgers?'
The NFU plan
Well, The National Farmers’ Union says that farming can become climate neutral by 2040 without cutting beef production. Yay for you burger lovers out there. It plans that three-quarters of the UK’s agricultural emissions can be offset by:
- Growing fuel for power stations;
- Increasing the carbon stored in soils and peatlands;
- Using technology to reduce the emissions caused by cattle.
It’s nice to see the NFU making ambitious plans and many farmers are already trying to adapt their methods to be less environmentally destructive. Will it work though?
Technology is not the answer.
There have been many attempts to reduce the amount of methane produced by cows.
From feeding them garlic oil to poking them with anti-methane vaccines. Researchers have also tried selective breeding and even potentially genetic modification with little success.
Most recently, a certain red Australian seaweed has been touted as the latest diet fad for cows. Researchers found it cut their methane production by nearly 60%. It’s just a case of growing enough… and making sure it remains effective. (Cows are notoriously good at adapting and those gassy burps just keep coming).
The only sure way is to either capture the methane produced, which results in some pretty invasive technology and questionable animal welfare, or to reduce the number of cows.
What if we just off-set the carbon produced? Is that enough?
Simply put, no. It’s the equivalent of trying to build a house whilst someone is knocking it down. We absolutely need greener energy sources and more ways of storing the carbon in the earth. But if agricultural production increases by 70% over the next 30 years (as is predicted)… well, the house will be a charred piece of rubble before the new groundworks have even been laid.
What this little thought nugget hasn’t even begun to cover is the landscape destruction caused by agricultural farming. In order to really make a dent in carbon neutralisation, a lot of agricultural land would need to be converted into more sustainable habitats. But that’s an article for another Monday... like next Monday!
A radical solution
What if we all just ate less meat?
A report by the UN climate summit found that avoiding meat and dairy products was the single biggest way to reduce an individual’s environmental impact. It recommended limiting our consumption to just 1.4 servings a week.
The absolute easiest way to reduce the amount of methane produced by cows is to reduce the number of cows needed. Don't worry, I'm not advocating for the complete elimination of cows! They can play an important role in healthy eco-systems. But, eating less meat, like committing to Meat-Free Monday or even just having that 1.4 servings a week, can cut your carbon footprint in half! It's pretty incredible for such a small switch.
I call it plate power.
And that’s your thought nugget for today’s Meat-Free Monday. Chew it over. Let me know what you think. Could you go with less cow for the climate?
For those disappointed by the idea of a burger-less future, try this week's recipe: Mung Bean burgers. They're not a big whopper replacement for sure, but they're easy, nutritious and surprisingly delicious.