You may not have noticed, but that bastion of social liberalism and cutting-edge science, Burger King, has taken on the issue of global warming, by directing its attention to the proliferation, not of carbon emissions, but cattle emissions.
Cow farts. (And cow burps, lest we forget.)
How does that work, exactly? It all goes back to methane, a notoriously stinky gas. Human farts are largely nitrogen, with at most a 10% content of methane. Cow farts, on the other hand, according to a Danish study, produce “enough methane per year to do the same greenhouse damage as four tons of carbon dioxide.” That’s one hell of a lot of farts. And they’re 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is. (Carbon dioxide is also a component of human farts, but not enough to make a difference. See how educational this blog is?)
Actually, as an article in the well-respected journal Gizmodo tells us, the methane produced in the intestinal tract of cows may contribute even more to greenhouse gases than the transport industry.
How do cows produce the methane that escapes from either end? It all starts in the cows’ first stomach (they have up to four, depending on how you count). Cows chew their cud (wadded up grain or grass) and send it on down the line to stomachs two, three, and four, and then out into our atmosphere.
“In actuality it’s not as much the farting that’s the problem,” the Gizmodo article continues. “Cows’ burping and manure contribute more methane gas than flatulence.” But cow farts make better headlines. Even the Burger King ad mentions farts first. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen farts called out in a commercial. Oh, they’re implied in gas relief product ads, but Burger King has taken a giant step by actually naming the problem. After all, isn’t that supposed to be the first step in solving one?
BK proposes a possible fix – changing the cows’ feed. Some suggested solutions have been attempted in other places, such as jacking up the cows’ feed with garlic (to be honest, I don’t know if this is what Burger King intends to do), which seems like it would at least alter the aroma and maybe make their burgers taste … well, different; and housing cows in giant plastic bubbles, which was dismissed as inhumane. (I’m not making this up.)
This is not a new problem. Back in the 70s, when I took Carl Sagan’s class at Cornell, he told us that greenhouse gases were produced in large quantities by “the rumen of ungulates,” which is delicate science-speak for cow burps and farts. As freshmen, we thought this was hilarious. (Why was Carl Sagan, who was teaching astronomy, talking about greenhouse gases? Because he was Carl Sagan. But I digress.)
It’s sobering to think that that noxious barnyard odor is not just repulsive, but also harmful to the environment. It’s also sobering to think that Burger King has been seriously contemplating the problem of cow greenhouse emissions. And I’m not sure how long the ad agency that produced that commercial will last with them. Though I, for one, would be curious to see a follow-up commercial on how their strategy is working out.
I would also be fascinated to be driving through farmland and see a herd of cows roaming the fields encased in giant plastic bubbles. How would they eat? What would happen to the methane when the cattle were released from their containers, as surely they must be at some time, if only to shovel their solid emissions.
I guess we should all just be grateful that the average cow diet doesn’t contain a lot of beans. Good for your heart, maybe, but not for the atmosphere.
If you want more details on the subject (though I imagine you don’t, really), go to https://gizmodo.com/do-cow-farts-actually-contribute-to-global-warming-1562144730