scorecardCow farts and livestock dangerous for climate change: Bill Gates
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Cow farts and livestock dangerous for climate change: Bill Gates

Cow farts and livestock dangerous for climate change: Bill Gates
LifeScience3 min read

  • A new study shows that meat consumption habits are increasing, which could lead to an overall increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Livestock is responsible for the same amount of carbon emissions as transport.
  • Scientists in India are exploring how to tailor the diet of cattle so that they produce 12-15% less methane.
Vehicles and carbon emissions is a story as old as the industrial revolution, but nobody’s thinking of greenhouse gases when they see a cow cross the road.

Talking of the growing concerns on climate change, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, in his annual letter, expressed concern over the dangers of cow farts. "I wish more people fully understood what it will take to stop climate change," the letter said.

A 2018 study, titled ‘The Future of Meat’ published in Science Mag explores the correlation between human meat consumption and population growth. Conclusions drawn show how these consumption habits are increasing and because of which, not only is it a health hazard for humans but there are negative consequences for the environment as well.

However, there are two key areas other than the growing population and their intake of meat -- manufacturing of building materials and agriculture -- which may have a dangerous consequence, according to him.

While the world is on a swing to twice the number of buildings by 2060, the letter highlighted that the raw materials used for buildings constitute 21% of the greenhouse emissions, globally.

Contributing his bit, Gates was addressing climate change via Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aimed at enhancing healthcare.

Climate change

Livestock, inclusive of cattle, chickens, sheep, pigs and goats, are responsible for nearly 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to the United National Food and Agriculture Organisation.

That means that the emissions from livestock are at par, if not a little in excess, with emissions from transport that stand at around 14% according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The analysis done in the study compares the variation in the levels of GHG emissions across different meat production cycles. Their study shows that ruminant mammals like cows are responsible for the highest amount of emissions, followed by non-ruminant mammals and poultry, in that order.

Even in comparing the different production systems, intensive rearing is more environmentally friendly than its extensive counterparts.

What can India do?

It’s no secret that India is home to largest cow population in the world. Between Mother Dairy, Amul and various regional milk brands, milk is essentially India’s largest ‘crop’ valued at around ₹650 billion.

There are a quite a few different schools of thought on the matter. While some approach the problem from the consumption side, where human choice behavior is analysed, others believe the solutions lie in changing livestock rearing techniques.

The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) is working towards tailoring the diet of cattle in such a way that methane emissions are minimised. Using physical and environmental parameters, the ideal feed quantities and mineral supplements are determined.

According to their study so far, the tailored diet can mean up to 12-15% less methane emissions from cows and buffaloes.

The issues of livestock rearing and consumption patterns are highly localised and need policy changes at a local level. There is no blanket solution that can be applied globally and be conducive for all countries involved.