Clean cow farts are not enough

The elimination of methane production in cows helps against only one of the many environmental issues with the livestock industry. (Josh Stanavage/The Daily Campus)

Among the many fronts at which the environment is being assaulted, the issue of livestock raising for meat production is of large importance but is often passed by. The methane produced by cows is of particular interest to a group of researchers from Scotland. As detailed in an NPR article on the research, the team found evidence suggesting that the methane-producing microbes in a cow’s gut are affected by the cow’s genetics. This could eventually even lead to the breeding of cows that do not produce any methane at all. Since methane is many times more harmful to the atmosphere in its heat-trapping as opposed to carbon dioxide, eliminating any source of it represents a huge gain against global warming. All in all, this seems like another win for conservationists.

Research like this falls into one view of environmental protection that is especially attractive to the general public. Perhaps the planet can subsist on life support just long enough for technology and scientific advances to resuscitate it, especially if we make little changes here and there to help it last until then. Breeding cows that do not expel methane does help the environment without any negative impacts on the quality of life for the average person.

Although technology and science march on to a better future, we do not have the time for little changes and waiting. Just as the planet has sacrificed so much with our existence and progress, I feel that we as a civilization must sacrifice some amount in order to make any significant progress. Making some large lifestyle choices will do much more good for the health of the planet than waiting for scientists to save the day.

This is where vegetarianism comes in. While I am aware and am not particularly fond of the stereotypical, condescending, lecturing  vegetarian, I do think there is some merit to the diet itself. Let me be frank, I do not give much concern to the much-espoused reasons for vegetarianism or veganism. While animals are treated very poorly, I do not think eating animals in and of itself is inhumane. The real benefit to vegetarianism is its positive impact on sustainability.

The elimination of methane production in cows helps against only one of the many environmental issues with the livestock industry. Even if the fruits of this research were put into place (which will not happen for many years yet), there are still other issues to attend to: the transportation of both live cow and meat, the volume of waste produced by them, and most importantly, the large amount of grain and corn needed to raise these cows. Eating meat in general is hugely inefficient, with every one pound of edible meat requiring ten pounds of edible plant material. The only real effective way to avoid this massive waste is to forego meat altogether.

Let me be clear, I am not perfect in this respect by any stretch of the imagination. While I have considered going vegetarian in the past and still aspire to it at some point, I have had trouble pulling the plug; meat just tastes too good. However, if we want to make a real difference for the good of our planet, especially when it is clear that the government has little intention of economically incentivizing more sustainable options, we must socially support better choices. Methane-free cows, and other such small developments, will be no good to us if we cannot shield against all the larger problems posing a threat to our planet.


Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.