When people think greenhouse gas, they usually recognise carbon dioxide as the root problem in artificially insulating the atmosphere. But methane is around twenty times as potent a cause of the greenhouse effect. And one cow can produce 250 to 500 litres in a day.
Methane is a Good Gas to Stop Leaving Around
Although present (and emitted) in lower quantities than CO2, Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas that humans emit into the atmosphere. And according to UNE Senior Lecturer Ian Godwin, methane emissions from livestock compose 15-20% of the total carbon output of Australia.
It sits there, reflecting radiation from the sun that becomes trapped in the atmosphere back down to earth at a higher rate than the normal amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And humans are putting more of it into the environment than is being removed by natural means, by breeding artificially huge herds of cattle and flocks of sheep (and fossil fuel mining, and landfills, but let’s address one thing at a time).
In addition, methane clears from the atmosphere a lot faster than other greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, so a reduction in emissions will bring about an appreciable positive impact in a much shorter term than targeting other sources of the greenhouse effect. So what is the solution to this? Reducing the market for livestock? Of course not. Let’s use science. (SCIENCE!)
A Scientific Approach
None of this is news, either; people have known that a) methane contains radiation absorbing carbon and that b) ruminant animals such as cows and sheep produce it in significant quantities for literally centuries. The CSIRO and NSW Dept. of Primary Industries have been responsible for studies, for example, that breed in low methane-producing genetic traits in cattle.
One way of approaching the issue is examining the diet of ruminants. Dietary urea is one progenitor of methane as a metabolic product of sheep and cattle. Replacing it with dietary nitrate has been shown, at this university, to substantially reduce emissions of methane.
But nitrate is toxic at high levels- the nitrite ‘partial’ metabolite of it leads to oxidation of haemoglobin of the blood, causing methaemoglobinaemia. Methaemoblobin cannot carry oxygen, which brings about anoxia and eventually death in the animal. Needless to say, a negative outcome for both farmers and the economy, not to mention the animal.
Fortunately, methaemoblinaemia is treatable with a substance called methylene blue. In addition, because nitric oxide (yet another metabolite of nitrate) lowers blood pressure, reducing the oxygen flow to tissues, the rural science community of the UNE has successfully conducted trials with adrenaline (which raises blood pressure).
Livestock methane emissions can be reduced substantially, safely, and this has already been achieved in trials conducted at UNE.
All this may seem like a small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, like a tiny step in addressing a leviathan problem. But it is more than comforting that these problems are being addressed by scientific institutions such as the CSIRO, and indeed, UNE, and that appreciable goals have been reached in solving the challenges that the industrialisation of farming have brought us, using evidence-based practices. This, combined with methane’s traits as a very low-toxic fuel (a whole other story) means we, as a society, might even stop releasing it carelessly into the sky.
Hey, maybe you’ll even start saving your own methane.
- Chris Myers