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Stop blaming cows for climate change

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Burger King stepped in a big controversy this month with its new ad campaign claiming that cow farts are to blame for climate change. The company had to pull the ad because it just isn’t true.

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Burger King used 13-year-old Mason Ramsey to push the cow fart myth in the ad. Unfortunately for Burger King, most of what Ramsey sang about is wrong.

First things first: The methane produced by cows comes from the front, not the back.

“It is really the burps of these animals, the belching, that causes the methane,” said Frank Mitloeher, an air quality specialist in the animal science department at UC Davis. “That is the number one contribution of ruminant livestock.”

Mitleoher was called-in by Burger King to help the company better understand how animal methane and industrial methane are quite different.

While the methane created by cow burps is the same chemically as the methane created by extracting oil, coal, and gas, there is a huge difference in what happens with that methane when it’s released.

“The carbon in this biogenic carbon cycle of a cow is just that — a cycle,” Mitloeher said. “It is a recycled carbon. It’s not new, additional carbon.”

The methane created by cow burps disappears in 10 years and becomes carbon dioxide, which feeds the plants that the cows eat, and the cycle continues. The CO-2 created by burning fossil fuels is a new emission, not a recycled one.

That is what most people, Mitloehner told the Ag Information Network, don’t understand.

“People don’t understand the nuances, and even many scientists don’t understand the nuances,” he said.

Mitloeher said the major formulas calculating the impact of cow methane don’t tell us anything about the warming impact of this, and that needs to change.

“Methane from livestock is not just produced, it’s also destroyed at almost the same rate,” he said. “This is something that is not currently being appreciated in public policy or in the public discussion on livestock’s impact on the environment.”

Plain and simple. In the United States, the methane produced by cows is not the problem, nor are the emissions created by raising them.

“The beef sector emits 3% of all greenhouse gases,” he said. “The dairy sector emits 2% of all greenhouse gases. Then there are three sectors — transportation, energy production, and cement industry — these three combined emit 80% of all greenhouse gases.”

Myth one: cow farts. Busted. It’s burps.

Myth two: Cows are largely responsible for climate change. Busted.

Myth three: You will need more cows and cattle to satisfy the food needs of our planet. Mitloehner busts that one too. The industry just needs to be more efficient, and developing countries need to do what California and other states have done.

“We had 25 million dairy cows in the United States in 1950,” he said. “Today, we have 9 million, but with the 9 million today, we produce 60% more milk. That means the carbon footprint of a glass of milk between 1950 and today has decreased by two-thirds.”

Now, don’t get Mitloener wrong. He believes reducing methane and carbon emissions is necessary. He just wants the focus to be on the right industries.

“Instead of dealing with these mega-polluters, we are dealing with cow burps, and that’s just laughable,” he said.

So if you’ve given up meat to reduce your carbon footprint, go ahead pick up a t-bone, and maybe a gallon of milk too.

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