Holy Cow!

Holy Cow!

Cow: conundrum

The role of cows in climate change is getting some more attention– their digestive systems and methane emissions, that is. An article in Time details India’s nearly 300 million cows’ contribution to global warming. A new study, the first ever “pan-India livestock methane-emission inventory,” found that India’s cows and buffalo “release” 11.75 million metric tons of methane each year. India’s is the largest share of methane emissions from livestock in the world. Demand for milk and meat is rising in India and with it, the population of ruminants. Scientists, the article says, are looking for ways of changing cows’ feed to reduce the methane load, but poor farmers can’t afford seemingly high-tech solutions (one approach is, of all things, an antibiotic, that appears to reduce methane-production in cows’ stomachs). What doesn’t seem to be on the docket: reducing India’s cow population altogether, and ratcheting up production, instead, of more vegetables, legumes and fruits.

A report on global food security and the environment released recently by the UN Environment Programme also lays out the challenges a meat-and dairy-intensive agricultural economy poses to ecosystems, the climate and to food equity, particularly the use of grains. While it doesn’t pull its punches in its analysis, its solutions reveal a heavy reliance on technology, and a belief that this will work in the short and long terms. Here’s one of the report’s main recommendations:

Reduce the use of cereals and food fish in animal feed and develop alternatives to animal and fish feed. This can be done in a “green” economy by increasing food energy efficiency using fish discards, capture and recycling of post-harvest losses and waste and development of new technology, thereby increasing food energy efficiency by 30-50% at current production levels. It also involves re-allocating fish currently used for aquaculture feed directly to human consumption, where feasible.

Note the “where feasible.” Is this going to work? There’s a lot that’s unknown and “new technology” to be developed isn’t detailed. Nor is anything said about slowing or reversing the growth in the farmed animal population. Curious, no?

That leads me to a final cow-related curiosity cum conundrum. Scientists studying the diets of a small group of Kenyan elephants found that what they ate changed, mostly, with the seasons. More grass consumed in rainy seasons, more trees and shrubs when it was dry. Except…when cows were a factor!

“During one rainy season, for example, the elephants did not shift to a diet of mostly grass. The researchers suggest this was because during that time the elephants migrated into an area that was heavily grazed by cattle and lost the competition for their usual food source.”