Cow Farts and Oregano: Low Tech Carbon Emissions Reductions

Many people already realize that cows are a climate change catalyst. When it comes to carbon emissions, cows worldwide generate 37 percent of anthropogenic methane. (Their methane is ours since their numbers are due to our dairy and meat production.) And methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So this is quite a bit. In fact, some researchers have estimated that if we stopped eating beef, we would reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking all our cars off the road! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

LiveScience.com recently reported that researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that feeding dairy cows oregano reduces their methane production by 40%! It turns out that cows produce methane in their rumen, the first and largest of their four stomachs. Something in oregano is released in that first stomach and squelches the growth of methanogenic bacteria.

The research also found that the oregano supplement increased milk production by 3 pounds per day per cow. The hypothesis is that methane production is energy lost from the food and, hence, the cow. Lower the methane, and you raise the available energy in the food.

Research continues to try to isolate the compound in oregano that is responsible for this result, and to make it more conveniently available to dairy farmers.

Stepping back, this becomes a more interesting story.

Perhaps the major reason that cows produce so much methane is that the diets we allow them are so poor. (Humans, too, develop a lot of gas when on a low quality diet.) Cows on factory farms, especially beef cows, are made to eat all kinds of rich “foods” they were never evolved to digest – grains and ‘supplements’ that often consist of the processed remains of other cows. Research has shown that giving cows a more natural diet reduces methane production just as effectively. And, of course, reducing our beef and dairy consumption is an even more efficient way to reduce these emissions, with an added benefit of improved human health.

So is oregano a real solution to a real problem? Or is it duct tape on a broken system?

What we find is that our carbon emissions reduction strategies are still being driven by market dynamics. This isn’t all bad. A properly regulated market has been shown to be the most efficient way to propagate a strategy. But what’s happening here, and in many other economic sectors, is that the generation of strategies themselves are being driven by vested economic interests who are seeking duct tape solutions when we need an altogether new system. Economic forces militate against the changes we need. Unless and until we get beyond duct tape solutions, we are going to find it very difficult to get below the 350 ppm CO2 concentration in the atmosphere that science is telling us we need to maintain a livable planet.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.