Did you notice? There’s been a little flurry of excitement about bovine belching and bottom burps. Over at The Other Place we do no more than record this for the greater good. Here, however, it gives me an excuse for a rant.
It’s all to do with global warming, of course. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases. Methane is a greenhouse gas. Cows fart and burp methane. So it stands to reason: reduce the farting and burping and you solve the problem of global warming.
Smacks forehead, crying “Why didn't I think of that?”
Because it is a dumb idea, in so many ways. It is the typical Band-aid response to a problem. Fix one tiny part, don’t bother even thinking about causes. Just like the biofuel bonanza. Oh dear, we're running out of fuel. OK, let’s grow some! Let’s not bother even trying to think about reducing our need for liquid fuel.
Oh dear, cows fart and belch and we’re all going to drown. Let’s stop them. Let's not even think about why society seems to have so many cows around.
And how do the scientists plan to solve the “problem” of bovine belching. By breeding more nutritious fodder. Remember when giving cows more nutritious fodder, in the form of cheap animal protein (made from other cows, as it happens), seemed like another bright idea. Before bovine spongy encephalopathy, mad cow disease?
Cows are meant to eat non-nutritious fodder. That’s the whole point of their existence. To eat stuff that people can’t or won’t and turn it into stuff that people can and will. They are not meant to stand around in feedlots or barns eating barley and “spent grains” and loads of other muck, farting and belching and polluting the environment for miles around.
The farting and belching are signs that the system works, that the bugs in the cow’s many stomachs are doing their job.
The real solution, of course, is to stop this mad desire to feed conspicuous consumption. This is not the place to go into all the myriad effects of supplying people with more meat than they really need. For an eye-opening review, take a look at Losing the Links Between Livestock and Land if you can get hold of a copy. It details the impact of a livestock industry that has become, as the authors put it, “footloose -- no longer tied to a local land base for feed inputs or to supply animal power or manure for crop production”.
Large-scale, intensive operations, in which animals are raised in confinement, already account for three-quarters of the world’s poultry supply, 40% of its pork, and over two-thirds of its eggs. ... By 2001, three countries -- China, Thailand and Vietnam -- accounted for more than half the hogs and one-third the chickens produced worldwide . ... A balanced Chinese diet of the early 1990s containing 20kg meat per year was produced from an average land area of just over 1000 m2/capita, whereas a typical Western diet required up to four times that area. ... If the world's population today were to eat a Western diet of roughly 80 kg meat per capita per year, the global agricultural land required for production would be about 2.5 billion hectares -- two thirds more than is presently used.
On and on it goes.
And while today everyone worries about Avian 'flu H5N1, not so long ago it was E. coli O157:H7 that was killing lots of people, spread far and wide by splattering faeces in industrial abattoirs. One reason for the rise: feeding cows on grain and silage rather than grass and hay. Give them hay, even for just a week before slaughter, and the levels of killer E. coli in their guts drops precipitously. (That one is freely available.) But do any of the industrialised feedlots do any such thing? Question expecting the answer no.
To be blunt, nobody in the mainstream is interested in either treating animals well or making good use of them.
And so we have British boffins banishing bovine bottom burps to wild applause. Feeding cows garlic (with predictable lame jokes about suiting the French market) to reduce their flatulence, instead of tackling the root causes.
OK, I can live with the fact that that’s just the way the world is, so I need to make my own personal choices to make my own personal difference. But why did what is essentially a non-story develop legs and run? Apparently it arose from a press briefing held by the Science Media Centre in London. The topic was farming and climate change. Of course we are deep in the silly season when news editors’ thoughts turn to stories of men biting dogs. But was there nothing else of interest?
I tried to find out, but the Science Media Centre’s web site contains no details. The director is far too busy (she gets “100s of emails a day” -- isn't she important?) to answer my enquiry. “Phone me.” In this day and age! There isn’t even a press release about the event. I guess they still have a bit to learn about both science and the media.