The Bull Apocalypse – Climate Change and the Burped Methane

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In the wake of America’s exit from the Paris Agreement, many wonder what this callous move means for the war on carbon gas emissions and climate change.  More importantly, many wonder what it means for the future of our planet and its ancient biodiversity, much of which is in the pipeline to extinction. While blame has been broadly hurled in the direction of the coal and fossil fuel industries, not much attention unfortunately has been paid to the agricultural industry, particularly livestock farming, whose contribution to the detoriating state of our planet has been subtle yet incredibly more hazardous at the molecular level than the perceived footprint of the former two.

You might be picking your brain and debating the idea of how agriculture, which is primarily practised in rural areas with less cars and factories, could possible exert any major influence on climate change. Well, I’m afraid it does, and the data shows a steadily upward-moving (dare I say, alarming) trend. What is it then that’s causing agriculture’s newly found interest among climate scientists? The answer might shock you, but it’s worth mentioning anyway: cattle. That’s correct, next to burning fossil fuels and deforestation, cattle are the greatest threat to the survival of the planet. You see, cattle are ruminants and by that virtue whatever they ingest is fermented by microbes in their rumen, setting off a toxic reaction the product of which is CH4, aptly nicknamed methane gas. The cattle then burp (or fart, depending on their mood) this methane into the atmosphere where it joins an alliance with carbon dioxide in the depletion of the ozone layer. I don’t need to take you through the details of what goes on after that. On any other day this wouldn’t be a cause for concern, except that methane is a dangerously lethal gas. One molecule of methane equals 23 molecules of carbon dioxide, and nearly all the methane in the atmosphere is due to cattle. Although there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than methane, the presence of this gas is nonetheless far more impactful. Expectedly, the U.S is among the world’s leading emitters of methane, and it’s not hard to see why. According to environmental physicist, Professor Gidon Eshel, the U.S. uses 47% of its land for food production, and of that, a lion’s share of approximately 71% is used to grow feed for cattle. This means only roughly 1% is used for fruit and vegetable production. It’s quite shocking then that the United States, in a futile effort to resuscitate its “greatness,” would slip back into the abyss of ignorance with regard to climate change as well as the detrimental impact its vast cattle stock is having on the atmosphere.

So, is there anything the rest of the world can do now that the biggest emitter has signed out of the most important climate change resolution in the world? Perhaps there is. While it would be unrealistic to ask people to think of methane emissions every time they consume beef, it is however important to note that a slight change in diet would make a significant difference. We on the African continent have a particular comparative advantage in this respect since our beef consumption is quite moderate compared to the rest of the world. A simple shift in diet, say, from beef to chicken would be a great place to start because then resources would be diverted from cattle to chicken. For starters, chicken requires much less land cleared to grow feed, while in comparison beef requires almost 60% more, almost two-thirds of the calories produced per acre, enough food to feed a staggering one billion people. Beef, as you can  clearly see, is one of the most incredibly inefficient uses of resources in the world. The opportunity cost, both in terms of food security and environmental impact, is far too high. Alternatively, we could cut down on our beef consumption, and if this doesn’t work, the government could increase the tax levied on all beef products as a measure to force those who don’t think this is a serious enough problem to curb their consumption. Whatever it may be, if we do not act on the looming atmospheric threat posed by cattle, then we only have ourselves to blame when they, through their constant burping of methane, unleash Pandora’s box upon the environment.

The world will not end in a catastrophic flood or storm of celestial meteors as many would have you believe. If anything, these are mere figments of man’s imagination – more closer to fiction than fact. The world, believe it or not, will end in a cumulous cloud of methane burped (or farted) by cattle. In short, the next apocalypse shall be rendered by the four-legged members of the genus Bovinae we have decorated the contents of our burgers with for as long as we’ve had McDonald’s. A pathetic way to go out, if you ask me.