Posted by: brian | May 31, 2007

The day the cows stopped farting

The June ’07 issue of Wired magazine includes a piece on page 60 about the fact that bovine belching (Ok, I said farting up there, but that was only to get your attention. Did it work?) contributes a significant quantity of methane to the atmosphere, and that this methane contributes to global warming – it is, in fact, “20 times worse for the atmosphere than CO2, yet it also dissipates faster.” According to the article, researchers propose the following 5 solutions to this problem:

1. Introduce intestinal bacteria from kangaroos to the bovine digestive system. Apparently, “large kangaroos eat like cows but produce less methane,” and some Australians believe that their internal flora might have something to do with it.
This idea is wonderful. Everyone knows that it’s easy to change one factor in a complex biological system without having any effect whatsoever on the rest of the system! Idiots. Evolution doesn’t result in the best possible design, but it does a pretty good job at coordinating multiple variables into workable systems. I’m willing to go on record as saying that no human has ever (and likely will never) design a functional system as complicated as a cow.

2. Capture the gas in a pouch that fits over the beast’s mouth. Inside the bag, where microbes consume the methane and in the process produce biomass that can be used as an energy source.
Feasible, and quite sensible. Easily the least idiotic proposal on this page, and provides an additional benefit. And surely no more constraining than strapping the beasts into a 15 square foot stall for a few months before making them delicious.

3. Toss some feed additives (including “chlorinated hydrocarbons”) into the mix to reduce methane production. Oops! “They’re expensive and can cause cancer.”
I think I hear something … is it the angry mob, screaming about food safety? I’d also like to reiterate the point about complex biological systems.

4. Use an antibiotic (the article refers to vaccination, which isn’t really the proper term for this proposal) to “eliminate the methane-producing bacteria inside a cow’s gut.” Looks like some folks in Australia and New Zealand are working on this “burp vaccine.”
Once again, complex biological systems are apparently easy to manipulate, and all negative consequences are minor and easily resolved. I’m no expert on bovine digestion, but I’m going to hazard a guess that those bacteria are doing more than just producing methane, and that the cattle in question would be pretty unhappy about this so-called “solution.”

5. Tax the humans! New Zealand tried, and failed, to create a methane tax (farmers protested – who’d’a thunk it!?). A Canadian alternative lets ranchers “qualify for carbon credits,” which, if I understand it correctly, means they don’t have to change anything if they pay money to the government.
Really? Does this really solve the problem? Does it even address the problem?

One thing I noticed: Nobody suggested that maybe fewer cows is (are? ;-)) part of the solution. Maybe a diet rich in whole grains and Cheerios can help reduce cholesterol. Then again, cows are delicious. Not as delicious as pigs, but quite tasty nonetheless.

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