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An ill wind: search for the methane-lite cow

Friday 26 June 2009

COUNTRYSIDE commentator John Sheard touches upon the touchy subject of methane production and marvels at a Canadian research programme designed to produce a new breed of cattle which might help save the planet – by burping less

MY GP, whose bedside manner can only be described as exemplary, has an interesting choice of words when it comes to the difficult discussion over the problem of passing wind. Does it go up or down? he asks.

Now I don’t believe that I am particularly different from most people in this respect (although I have been described as an “old wind bag” from time to time by those who take exception to my views) but the fact of the matter is that, according to the received scientific wisdom, in doing so I am endangering the planet.

cow
Methane maker

Because this act, unmentionable in most Western cultures, produces methane whichever way it comes out and, say the fashionable scientists, methane is one of the truly dangerous greenhouse gasses which are causing global warming.

My views of this subject have caused alarm and even contempt in the past, when I have been accused of being a global warming denier, which these days is much worse than pretending the Holocaust did not happen. In fact, I do not deny we are getting warmer but I believe this is part of the Earth’s normal cycle and has little to do with mankind’ s actions.

In this, I will perhaps grudgingly admit that perhaps we are making a challenging situation a little worse and I do what I can to reduce energy consumption etc. But what caught my attention this week was a research project underway at the University of Alberta, Canada, to breed the methane-lite cow.

Cattle – in fact, all farm animals with sheep as particularly bad offenders – produce a great deal of methane. According to Professor Stephen Moore, who is leading this research, they are responsible for three quarters of all methane emissions, which are 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the most common “greenhouse” gas.

Whilst it tends to be overlooked that most plants breath carbon dioxide, and the more there is the bigger and quicker plant crops grow, to the great benefit of the world’s booming population, methane has little going for it unless it can be trapped and burned as a non-fossil fuel. But the mind boggles as to just how a cow’s production could be usefully captured.

So Prof Moore and his team are breeding cattle which produce 25% less methane. And if every cow in North America a produced just 12% less, say the experts, it would be the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the road.

Now Manitoba and the Great Plains of North America are a long way from the Yorkshire Dales and our farmers here probably think that this research will have little effect on their methods. Not so! There are powerful people in the European Union who are already calling for a 25% reduction in livestock numbers for this very same reason: methane production. And we all know – under the present non-Government at least – that what Brussels wants, Brussels gets.

we humans produce millions of tonnes of methane every year

This might not be the outright disaster it seems. I have long thought that much pasture land could be turned over to large-scale poultry production to rid the nation of the curse of battery hen factory farming, a method already in wide scale use for the outdoor rearing of pigs.

But that would mean major, expensive changes and some of our older farmers are very reluctant to seek out new methods. And what about this potential flaw: has anybody ever measured how much methane a hen produces per pound of chicken meat as opposed to a pound of beef or lamb? Someone, somewhere, is probably calculating just that.

There is, however, another route to explore on the road to a methane-lite world: the human race. The fact of the matter is that we humans produce millions of tonnes of methane every year and, as the world’s population soars, that figure goes up annually: even the UK is expected to have 80 million people later this century, thank mainly to immigration.

The easiest way to solve this problem would be to encourage people to have fewer children, which in turn would mean lower demand for food which in turn would mean fewer cattle, sheep and pigs. But that’s too simple for scientists and the politicians on the global-warming band wagon to grasp. Hence, the need for the methane-lite cow!

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