Cattle and Climate Change

In recent times, cows have been in the Indian media, vastly politicized, unwittingly becoming a symbol of a pseudo-nationalism and Hindu supremacy for virtually all the wrong reasons which overshadow what their existence can, and does, mean to the world on the outset.

Cattle in India, the fifth largest beef eating country, totals to 512.05 million according to the livestock census of 2012. Of this, the total Bovine population is 299.9 million. It is imperative that we are aware of the environmental implications of these large numbers.

Cattle is known to be the largest emitter of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas (GHG), beating transportation, that can trap more heat in the environment than carbon dioxide. Cows produce an enzyme in their gut that makes methane which transpires through enteric fermentation (belch and flatulence) and their manure.

Larger animals like cows and sheep (as opposed to chickens) take larger space in terms of land for grazing, leading to large scale deforestation to produce pasture and fodder for them. Recently, Economic Times reported that green pastures allocated to animal grazing, currently 71 per cent of the cultivable land, are depleting due to urbanization and are estimated to plunge to 6 per cent by 2020 and by another one per cent by 2030. Meanwhile, the cattle population has increased by 14 per cent annually.

Livestock intensification to maximize milk and meat production is then highly unsustainable as it not only requires more land but also animal feed which requires huge amounts of fertilizer. This fertilizer, along with manure and urine, releases copious amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide and methane.

A report from United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) listed how the food processing factories create pollution and especially the ‘meat, poultry and seafood sector’. An intricate process involving killing of the animal, removing its organs, washing/cooling, packaging and cleaning up goes into the factories, which are infested with pathogenic organisms that can cause various diseases if not treated properly.

The waste include animal carcasses, bloodied water, skeleton and their removal is primarily done by incorporating the solid waste into animal feed, cosmetic and fertilizers while the waste waters are disinfected through chlorine, and now — ozone and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, before discharging.

Food’s carbon footprint is an end product of all the practices involved in its production leading to what’s called “food miles” through processing, storage and transportation. Meat especially needs to be frozen and that requires a significant amount of energy, releasing carbon emissions.

A larger amount of resources are appropriated into making, for instance, a hamburger, which requires 2400 litres of water whereas a tomato only 13 litres, according to a BBC report. Consuming animal products, then, requires a great deal of energy and scarce resources, and while the whole planet cannot be asked to curb it in their diet, for a vast population’s survival depends on it, its consumption can certainly be reduced.

Global emissions of methane were estimated to be between 76–92 Tg per year (1 Tg = 1 million metric tonnes). This is roughly equal to ~10–15 % of global methane emissions, which in turn is ~15 % of global GHG emissions. Methane is a more potent GHG than CO2, which means that gram for gram methane warms the atmosphere more than CO2. Methane also has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere compared to CO2 (~10 years compared to 100s of years) which will produce more rapid impacts on the global climate. This also means that any reductions in methane emissions will see a faster decrease in atmospheric concentrations than compared to CO2.

Nov 11, 2016