I spent most of yesterday at a symposium organised by the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology. A lot of topics were discussed, but one that interested me was methane, mainly that emitted from both ends of ruminants such as cows.

There’s plenty to to say about this, but I’m just going to repeat one point that I made briefly and that subsequent speakers like Snow Barlow from Melbourne expanded on. Methane belched or farted by a cow is not just a greenhouse gas, it’s nutrition wasted by the digestive process. So, if we can find ways to reduce methane emissions, they should also increase the productivity of agriculture.

That’s not to say that there are $50 bills lying in every cowpat, waiting to be picked up. If there were a cheap and easy way of improving digestion it would have been found by now. But there’s certainly a potential for increased output to offset the costs of finding, developing and implementing ways of reducing methane emissions, for example by making cows fart like kangaroos

As an illustration of the complexities, some other research reported at the symposium showed that having more CO2 in the atmosphere will increase the growth of some tropical grasses (this was a bit of a surprise because these are C4 plants, generally thought to benefit less from this effect), but will reduce the nutrient quality which makes digestion more difficult and therefore tends to increase methane emissions. For any “Greening Earth’ fans out there, I should point out that, as in previous work, studies reported at the symposium found that adverse effects of higher temperatures and more variable rainfall will outweigh any net benefits of CO2 fertilisation

Here’s my presentationMosquito the Rapist aka Bloodlust on dvd

38 thoughts on “Methane

  1. A compromise might be to eat less meat and dairy and more fruit’n veg. That might enable higher vegetative capture of CO2 with communal health benefits as a bonus. Resilient woody plants could be used to make biofuels if the second generation technology can be proved. It has been pointed out that prolific use of nitrogen fertiliser increases emissions of nitrous oxide another potent greenhouse gas. Modern farming therefore needs to be held to account for CO2 from diesel, CH4 from cow farts and N2O from fertiliser. The day might come when a much reduced national herd roams freely as in India. Benefits include suburban bushfire hazard reduction and manure for the vegie patch.

  2. CSIRO did a lot of work in the 1990s on a vaccine against the methanogens in the rumen. It worked, but it didn’t give a large enough reduction in methane to be profitable to the grower. The work stopped because it couldn’t be commercialised, though quite a bit of the funding was from the private sector. Perhaps this approach should be revisited.

  3. My recollection of the early work on increased CO2 availability for plants was that trees make larger root systems rather than larger upper growth, which might be a useful connection for the article cyted by Robert Merkel on carbon nodules on roots of some plants (phytoliths).

  4. I don’t know why it is so difficult to emphasise the significant greenhouse benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption now. If future research finds ways to reduce methane emissions, great, but there will always be extra – and very significant – gains which can be made be cutting back consumption of greenhouse intensive products, especially in this area where there are obviously readily available alternatives (which in many cases are also cheaper).

    Its a bit like focusing solely on creating more fuel efficient cars without also continually pointing will still need to reduce the amount of driving – except the greenouse from livestock is actually greater than the transport sector.

    In addition, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere reduces far more rapidly than CO2, so if we can reduce methane emissions now we gain ourselves a quicker benefit than equivalent reductions in CO2 – in effect buying time for the harder areas like air travel and power generation.

    It is also worth noting that, if Prof Barry Brooks’ analysis of methane impacts is correct, it actually even more potent a greenhouse gas than usually assumed – normally it’s ‘carbon equivalency’ is said to be around 21 times, but the submission by Geoff Russell & Prof Brooks to the Garnaut Review suggests this should be closer to 72 times.

    Either way, its more potent and dissipates more quickly, so we have even more to gain by reducing output quickly – which should be feasible, because alternatives already exist and there is unlikely to be any net negative economic impact as a consequence of a lot of people changing the composition of their diet.

  5. #2: The first hurdle would be getting an ethics clearing for the research – funny isn’t it?

    I suppose eating some kangaroo meat and less beef, leaving cows as they are, is not a good idea.

  6. Presumably, once agriculture is included in an ETS, there will be a price signal that will encourage people to change their consumption patterns towards less greenhouse-intensive diets.

  7. ProfQ,

    I’m not sure you’re presumptions will be bourne out in reality.

    Apparently a meat eater is responsible for about 1.5 tonnes more CO2 emissions per year than a vegetarian.

    (I think a cow emits about a tonne of methane over the course of a year, but this needs to be converted to CO2-e).

    Even if the ETS cap is severe and triggers a high carbon price per tonne, the flow through effect to a cut of meat will be just about undetectable to most consumers.

    Perhaps if carbon was priced at a few thousand dollars a tonne then people’s diets might change, but at the predicted price range – say $20 to $100 over the course of a year – it wont make any difference at all in the supermarket in my opinion.

    Far better than relying on an ETS is further funding for the mitigation research you mentioned before, and more of the marketing that I’ve recently seens starting to appear. I have heard rumours that some of the experimental diets (including coconut oil, for example) are already showing significant reductions in methane emissions from cattle.

    There is an enormous amount of work that can be done in this area.

  8. Two observations:

    1. I think there are some good reasons for switching to kangaroo meat. Kangaroos are more drought tolerant and herd sizes recover well after drought and their hoofs do less environmental damage than cattle. Their meat is also nutritionally advantageous and in my view is every bit as tasty as beef. That’s apart from them being more methane efficient.

    2. I think farmer behaviour needs to be accounted for in analysing adaptations. What info will lower their adjustment costs and how to convince preople who are used to periodic droughts of reality of longer term climate change?

  9. The huge amounts of water to produce a kilo of beef could also see the human carnivorous bent taking a hit in a post ETS world. Agree with the postings in favour of kangaroo meat, but have always wondered why you never see a promotional ‘tasting’ in the supermarkets.

  10. I have somewhere heard that cooking kangaroo enough to destroy parasites makes it poorer eating. If so, it would mean great care would be needed to get animals that were healthy.

  11. “I have somewhere heard that cooking kangaroo enough to destroy parasites makes it poorer eating. If so, it would mean great care would be needed to get animals that were healthy.”

    AS I said last tiem you mentioned this PM, coles has been selling Kangaroo for years.

  12. Well, if it’s not mythane,yourthane then it must be me-thane.It is indeed a case of outuendo instead of innuendo.

  13. Kangaroo is not only healthy, being lean and low in cholesterol, it is a real gourmet meat, more than comparable with venison.
    Kangaroos reduce soil erosion and stream sedimentation compared with most domestic livestock and have the advantage of being free range with stress free killing.
    While I don’t necessarily agree with the AGW argument, kangaroos, but not wallabies, are a great human resource.

  14. o.k. Eating kangaroo meat is not obviously a bad idea.

    Now, what about goats (farmed and feral)? (Disclosure: Financial interests in this area))

    PS: Re #18: ‘Sufficient agreement’ with the AGW argument is good enough.

  15. Although I did argue for including enteric emissions in an ETS in a submission to the Garnaut review, I am thinking more and more lately that agriculture and land use activities should be kept out of an ETS. There are other ways to introduce a carbon price for these sectors, such as some sort of carbon tax (which can be negative). A carbon tax would manage the uncertainties associated with measurement much better than inclusion in an ETS. In an ETS uncertainties affect the whole trading scheme. I don’t think these uncertainties will go away any time soon, if ever. I don’t think that uncertainties can be managed by only including some land use related activities in an ETS either. For example including reforestation in an ETS would be likely to lead to carbon leakage to native forest logging, whose emissions are not accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol.

    Reducing cattle levels would also reduce emissions from grazeland degradation, which is also not accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol. Kangaroo meat also tastes far better than cow meat 😀

  16. I agree with Andrew Bartlett on the benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption. They are not only environmental benefits, but also health benefits. We eat far more red meat than is “normal” for our species, despite the industry adds. Several studies show that vegetarians suffer less heart disease and other illnesses, and generally live longer and healthier lives. I changed to a (mostly) vegetarian almost a decade ago and have only been surprised how easy it was.

  17. “Several studies show that vegetarians suffer less heart disease and other illnesses, and generally live longer and healthier lives. I changed to a (mostly) vegetarian almost a decade ago and have only been surprised how easy it was.”

    Several studies also prove the earth is flat.

  18. #20 Mark U,
    It’s probably debatable how “stress free” a bullet to the brain is while grazing on home pasture as opposed to trucking to the slaughter yards where you don’t really know how much animals understand.
    My impression with domestic livestock is that when they can smell the blood of their own they become very alarmed.
    It’s a natural survival instinct.

  19. EG #19,
    IMO goats are great survivors and when farmed have meat indistinguishable from sheep. They provide disease-free milk and cheese but when feral their meat is often rank.
    I don’t know what gas they fart but they will convert the garden of eden into a desert quicker than just about any animal short of a camel.

  20. Actually, spangled, goat is different to sheep (better, in my view, and certainly leaner). Because they are ruminants, they’ll fart as much methane as sheep, and they’re even more destructive.

  21. Can anyone reference a data source that indicates methane emissions for kangaroos and cows, in some format suitable for comparison (e.g., per kilogram of edible meat). As a fan of kanaroo meat I tried to google search for this about a year ago but found nothing relevant. Thanks

  22. Re #26 and 27. Thank you. I understand there are no objections if feral goats get a predator such as humans.

    Interesting that you should mention camels, spangled d. They were the next item on my list of questions.

  23. EG #29,
    A few years back now before the dingoes and dogs moved into central Australia it was sheep country and the Afghans carted the wool to the SA railheads by camel train.
    There were usually 2 Afghans with a team of 100 camels and they wouldn’t unpack the camels at night, just tie each one to a tree.
    By morning the tree was gone and the camel train moved on…

  24. Re the feral goats;
    I’ve been trying to clean up my feral goats and have, hopefully, reduced them to a couple of old non breeding nannies.

  25. Years ago I proposed a big feral animal reduction program as a greenhouse mitigation measure.

    Unfortunately I was todl it wasn’t on because it didn’t fall with the Kyoto framework,

  26. Ian,
    It’s amazing the resistance you can get to feral animal removal.

    Particularly in national parks!

  27. Goats are clever, and delicious. Surely not as suitable to Australian farming as roos though. I think the Coat Of Arms (roo and emu) should be the national dish. It also has the added advantage of putting one over the poms, who obviously ate their last unicorn centuries ago.

  28. Someone sadi at a meeting the other evening that if we become vegetarian we start burping CH4 – is this so? Resubmitted just to let you know I can spell!

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