The Dangers In A Belch: How Cattle Are Important To Climate Change

Beef is the third most consumed animal meat in the world, only behind chicken and pork, and cattle (bulls and cows) are some of the most abundant livestock animals on the earth surface.

According to the 2019 Food and Agriculture Organisation Statistical database (FAOStat), 68 million tonnes of beef is consumed globally every year, and it is a type of meat that is globally accepted. 

There are 1.4bn cattle in the world producing these tonnes of beef, with the business of cattle rearing defining the agricultural culture of some tribes, people and nations. Some 365million of these billion cattle are in Africa, with Ethiopia holding more than 60 million of them.

How do all these animal and beef statistics concern arguably the hottest subject in the world – climate change? It’s all in a belch. The answer is found in cattle’s satisfaction. But first; methane! 

The Methane Pledge

At the COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, more than 100 countries of the world took a Methane Pledge alongside the United States and the European Union (EU). It’s seen as a decision expected to be a baby step in the direction of reducing methane emissions by the year 2030; a low hanging fruit that is very significant to the 1.5 degree Celsius 2050 dream of the world. 

While major methane emitters, China, India and Russia have continued to play hard ball, the pledge to cut methane emission, if achieved is capable of taking the world a step closer to actualising the 2050 mission. 

Methane is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide and it is currently responsible for a fourth of global warming in the world. According to the United Nations Global Methane Assessment, the reduction of methane can slash warming projections by 0.2 degree Celsius; also, cutting human-caused methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly limit the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to reduce temperature rise to 1.5°C.  A report by the United Nations Global Methane Assessment also says that “available targeted methane measures, together with additional measures that contribute to priority development goals, can simultaneously reduce human-caused methane emissions by as much as 45 per cent, or 180 million tonnes a year (Mt/yr) by 2030.”

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It would also help recover 73 billion of lost hours from unbearable heat and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally. 

Methane, with a warming potential 28 times more than carbon dioxide is capable of staying in the atmosphere for at least two decades before it gets destroyed. A reduction in its emission is seen as a first step on the short term to keep the climate safe from warming. Its impact on the climate, on the long term pales in comparison with carbon dioxide but reducing it now is just as significant. 

Methane from the agriculture industry stands for 40% of the global methane emission. Fossil fuels (35%) and wastes (20%) are the other highest sources of emission. When Brazil accepted to be a part of the Methane Pledge, it was seen as a significant addition as it is one of the agricultural hubs of the world and the second highest producer of beef in the world after the US.

What About The Innocent Cattle?

Methane is part of the biogenic carbon cycle. It is a Greenhouse Gas, hence it’s said to contribute to climate change. When cattle belch, they release methane. Hence, the link of the cattle to the subject of climate change. Does this mean you have a beef with the climate when you bite a meat from cattle? Dicey! 

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While cattle belch releases methane, the gas is a significant part of a natural cycle called the biogenic carbon cycle. 

The biogenic carbon cycle reins in on the ability of plants to absorb and sequester (capturing, securing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) carbon. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposit them into their leaves, stems and roots in a process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is highly significant to the biogenic carbon cycle. 

During photosynthesis, carbon is converted to cellulose – one of the main building blocks for the growth of plants. Cellullose is the most abundant organic compound in the world, as it’s found in grasses, crops, shrubs, and trees. Grasses and shrubs especially have a very high level of cellulose content. These grasses are indigestible to humans, but the cattle by the virtue of their four stomach compartments (ruminants) and through enteric fermentation, can break cellulose down. 

Cattle digest the carbon that is also stored in cellulose and use it in a number of metabolic processes. With the ingestion and digestion of cellulose by cattle, cattle belch out a by-product of the carbohydrate, methane. 

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, has its previously sequestered carbon released back into the atmosphere. Methane is broken down after 12 years in the atmosphere and is converted back into CO2 in a process known as Hydroxyl Oxidation. Plants trap the CO2 again for photosynthesis and cattle eat plants and the cycle of the release of methane continues. 

The role of cattle in the emission of methane in the world has been a subject of debate with its impact argued. While the impact of methane on climate change is indisputable, through its ability to trap heat for a long time, how much of methane released by cattle in their belch is still subject to good standards of measurement. According to researchers, an average cattle belches 220 Pounds (99 Kg) of methane in a year. 

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Methane also comes from rice fields but cattle produce the highest amount of the gas in agriculture.  New diets and feed additives for cattle have been advised as a way of reducing the methane emission from a herd. 

Although it’s easy to victimise the beef eater and the dairy farmer as being a part of the world’s problems, the main challenge of climate change still lies in fossil fuels and not livestock production, despite contributing 14.5% of the world’s methane. 

There are dangers in the cattle’s belch, quite unknown to the local Fulani man in West Africa or the Masai in East Africa, but the world has its safety first in reducing the billows of smoke from the factories in China, Russia and the United States and saving the oceans from the troubles of the fossil fuels from these countries.

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