In the past few years we’ve seen a rise in popularity of one of the sillier environmental crises: cow farts. The subject has appeared a number of times in the national press this year, notably in February 2019 with the Green New Deal referring to “farting cows” as a major source of greenhouse gases and also when Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg describing people who eat burgers as “part of the problem.”
Contrary to all the talk about farts, 95% of methane emissions from cows actually come from their burps. Cows mostly produce methane by belching during a digestive process known as enteric fermentation, in which bacteria in their rumen, a stomach compartment, breaks down food and leaves methane as a byproduct. Methane is a greenhouse gas that environmentalists correctly describe as having 25 times more impact per molecule on global warming than carbon dioxide. However, they conveniently fail to mention that our methane emissions are very small compared to our CO2 emissions.
Methane emissions are only 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in CO2 equivalents, and enteric fermentation accounts for only 27% of methane emissions, which means it is only 2.7% of the total. This is a drop in the bucket when compared to emissions from the transportation and electricity sectors.
The good news is that, due to new technological advancements and industry trends, our methane emissions have been steadily declining since 1990. This is due in some part to the major decline in cattle population since the 1970’s. The reason for the declining cow population can be attributed to innovations in genetic breeding selection that allow farmers to gain more beef per cow.
In addition to more efficient breeding techniques, future innovations in how farmers feed cattle promise to greatly lower methane emissions while keeping costs low for farmers. This suggests that cows are not a real problem that needs to be solved by government regulations. The free market-led innovations in the cattle industry have already brought improvements in methane emissions, and they are still a minute portion of our total emissions.
The outcry about cattle from some environmentalist politicians is not based on a sound understanding of the science behind farming and ranching. It is instead another attempt to assert more control over our lives while demonizing human progress.
Thanks to agricultural advancements, more people in the world are fed than ever, and we currently produce enough food to feed 1.5 times our current population. If every country had the access to electricity we enjoy in America, and therefore access to refrigeration, hunger could be virtually eliminated. Despite this, some climate alarmists demand we solve problems that don’t exist rather than admit free markets have allowed our lives to be the most prosperous in human history.
So go ahead: enjoy that burger. The planet will be just fine.