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Bovine Belching Responsible for Climate Change! Really??

Posted 4/25/2010 11:17am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

It is hard not to feel challenged these days when some of the very people I feel share and articulate my concerns regarding global ecological health promote vegetarianism or veganism as the biggest lifestyle change a person can make to help the environment.  They not only point to the all the fossil fuels used to grow feed-grain and move the animals from feedlot to market, they also point to evidence that the ruminating process of cows release an exorbitant amount of natural methane into the atmosphere.  I admit, until the methane argument got thrown into the mix, I felt pretty secure in our farming methods, in fact we, along with many grass farmers and grazers join the protest against the devastating ecological affects and inhumane treatment of animals associated with industrial-scale meat production. 
Then came the methane argument.  My first defensive thought was "who funded this study?" "Who is behind this?"  Every report I heard on the subject assumed broad generalizations about how the meat was produced. There were never any qualifications about production methods.   Surely the methane produced from a natural process as amazing as rumination cannot be a major factor in climate change!  But I am not a scientist and between farming, raising kids, volunteering for the PTA, PASA, etc. etc. I simply do not have time to do an in depth analysis of the methane argument.   All I knew was it didn't smell right to me, and believe me; I know cow smells better than most.  But being a beef farmer,  I'm prone to approach this issue with some biases that could blind me from the truth.  If I am going to be a skeptic,  I'd better start by being a bit skeptical of my own motives. 

In the most recent Orion, Bill McKibben, (environmentalist, author, and scholar in residence at Middlebury College) took a helpful look at the issue.  Bill Mckibben announces immediately that he has not cooked red meat in years.   I think it is fair to say his views are less biased than mine -- a very frequent eater and prepar-er of red meat who is all to happy to provide quality grass-fed red meat to anyone who is seeking it!  I will skip the details as you can read  "The Only Way to Have a Cow" for yourself  (it will be posted on April 1st.)   He makes a distinction between large feedlots and a rotational grazing system that essentially mimics what large herds of bison or other ungulates did prior to the disappearance of large predators.  They moved, spreading their manure as they went and allowing for a wide variety of grasses to thrive without needing to till, seed, spray, and mechanically harvest huge swaths of land.  According to McKibben"This method of raising cattle could put much of the atmosphere's oversupply of greenhouse gasses back in the soil inside half a century."  He goes on to say that raising beef this way will cost more, which is an important limiting factor to the amount of meat Americans eat.   "Everything in moderation" (except for the occasional chocolate binge) seems like an appropriate axiom for most of life on this precious planet.  (I wish he'd cite the research he uses, but Orion is not a scientific journal and no doubt the debate about naturally produced methane will continue.  If you know of credible research in this area, we'd love to read it.)