Are Cow Farts Really Killing the Planet?

Cattle Carbon Infographic

Infographic from

Frank Mitloehner wants you to know that it’s not cow farts that are killing the planet. The big bovine brouhaha, he says, is a bit overblown. Really, we need to pay attention to the carbon released from carbon fuels.

Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t go down well with angry vegan activists. “Let dairy die” was their mantra last week when some of them charged the stage at a Biden campaign rally.

Needless to say, rational discourse is difficult in the midst of this age of truth decay, especially on this subject. Partisans swat at pesky facts as if they were cows trying to swish pesky flies away with their tails.

Accounting for Carbon Cycles

Part of the disagreement about the impact of livestock on the environment comes from how we account for the life cycle of carbon in the atmosphere, Carbon dioxide has a long life when we release it into the air by extracting and burning fossil fuels. By comparison, the methane from livestock (e.g., cow farts) has a much shorter life in the atmosphere. So methane needs to be factored into environmental impact calculations differently than carbon dioxide. Dave Frame, Adrian Henry Macey, and Myles Allen explain this in plain language in The Conversation.

The Long Shadow of an Erroneous Report

However, a 2006 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) casts a long shadow over this debate. Appropriately enough, it was called “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Mitloehner explains:

The agency drew a startling conclusion: Livestock was doing more to harm the climate than all modes of transportation combined.

This latter claim was wrong, and has since been corrected by Henning Steinfeld, the report’s senior author. The problem was that FAO analysts used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment to study the climate impact of livestock, but a different method when they analyzed transportation.

As a result, the FAO’s comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to those from transportation was greatly distorted.

Coming Back to Earth

The point here is not that animal agriculture should get a free pass when it comes to addressing climate change. We need to look at every sector of the economy for the best ways to save the planet. More sustainable agriculture is part of that picture. But Mitloehner says that giving up meat will not save the planet. And moreover, it would eliminate a source of important nutrition.

Plant-based diets are enjoying a great deal of popularity and a certain cultural cachet. Fine. Vegan diets are totally fine, too. Nonetheless, many people still have a place for meat and dairy in their diets. In the end, we must find a way to meet varied needs for human nutrition in a sustainable way. With a little less shouting.

Click here for more from Mitloehner and here for further perspective from recent research.

Cattle Carbon Cycling Infographic from

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March 10, 2020

One Response to “Are Cow Farts Really Killing the Planet?”

  1. March 11, 2020 at 4:44 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Methods of measurement to yield meaningful info, and not just data to prove one’s points seem like Decency or Truth 101 to me. What good is all the effort, funding, and time devoted to research if it’s just misleading or enabling false living.