Aveneu Park, Starling, Australia

In controversial being Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

In recent years a surge of new documentaries have come out on the issue of climate change and sustainability. One of the most popular and controversial being Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The documentary outlines the impact of animal agriculture on the planet and concludes with how simple changes can be made that will profoundly impact the world for the better. However, beside the praise for this documentary there were others who questioned its truth, and doubted some of the facts presented. This paper looks into how animal agriculture, primarily cows, plays a role in the greenhouse effect specifically looking at deforestation, water usage, methane production and the its global warming potential(GWP). As well as determining the effect cows have in the United States and the world over the course of one year, through calculating the (GWP) in relation to the amount of methane produced by a single cow.Methane(CH4) is one of the main greenhouse gases as stated by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA). Other greenhouse gases include Carbon Dioxide(CO2), Nitrous Oxide(N2O), Water Vapor(H2O) and Fluorinated Gases such as Hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons, Nitrogen Trifluoride(NF3), and Sulfur Hexafluoride(SF6). CO2 is considered to be the most abundant of all the gases and is used as the base value for the Global Warming Potential of greenhouse gases. A greenhouse gas is a substance that gets trapped in our atmosphere and contributes to the “Greenhouse Effect”. The greenhouse effect is how many scientist describe global warming and is an analogy for when gases such as those build up in the troposphere and absorb thermal radiation from the sun and slow the rate at which the energy escapes-similar to what happens in a standard greenhouse. This in turn has an effect on the temperature of our atmosphere and oceans. During the 20th century, the Earth’s average temperature has risen approximately 1 degree Fahrenheit, and scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predict a temperature increase of 2.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit within the next century (The consequences of climate change, NASA). Talk about how the temperature change has changed our world so far(glaciers, ice caps) It is standard for some gases to be present, however human production and emission of these gases is disturbing the natural balance. The burning of fossil fuels, transportation emissions, residential emissions, and agriculture all contribute to the greenhouse effect. Methane, behind Carbon Dioxide is the largest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States according to the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks published in 2017 by the EPA(in text citation).  NASA also commented on the role of CH4 in our atmosphere saying “methane is a far more active greenhouse gas than carbon dioxidethough it is much less abundant in the atmosphere.”(in text citation) This is because CH4 is 25 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the troposphere (IPCC,2007), due to it having a higher GWP. GWP is a measure of the amount of energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the same time period. The larger the GWP, the more that a given gas warms the Earth compared to CO2 over 100 years. GWP allows for a common unit of measure when comparing emissions of different gases, and allows policy a clearer understanding of which gases need to be regulated.    CH4 is produced both naturally and through human activities such as landfills, rice cultivation, and animal agriculture(enteric fermentation-animal digestive process-, and manure management). On a molecular level, CH4 is a more active greenhouse gas than CO2, but less abundant in the atmosphere.(Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, NASA)Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to methane production in the United States and around the world. Between 1990 and 2015 scientists saw a correlation between cattle population and an increase in CH4 emissions. They saw similar trends from 1996 to 2004, when emissions decreased due to fluctuations in cattle populations and an increase in digestibility for feedlot cattle(an enclosed area where livestock are fattened up before slaugter). However the effects of animal agriculture on the environment go farther than CH4 production; 91% of rainforest deforestation can be partially attributed to the clearing of land for grazing and growing of feed for livestock. The rainforest plays an important factor in preventing climate change, the abundance of plants aid in  the gases which rest in our lower atmosphere, and the large tree canopies absorb a portion of the sun’s heat and radiation which helps regulate temperatures. Animal agriculture also attributes to 55% of water usage in the US (in text citation).However, the two main factors of CH4 production from cows are enteric fermentation and manure management. Enteric fermentation is a natural process that takes place in animals that are able to digest coarse plant material that is unable to be digested by monogastric-single stomached-animals. These animals are called Ruminants, and include cattle, sheep, goats, giraffes, moose, many types of deer as well as a few other land mammals. In cattle, microbes decompose and ferment feed in the rumen. This is a specialized stomach that begins breaking down the animals ingested feed before they can be absorbed and metabolized in the reticulum. Enteric Methane is a by-product of this process and the majority of emissions are expelled through the exhalation and burping of the animal the rest are expelled as CH4 is produced in the large intestines.Enteric fermentation is the largest anthropogenic source of CH4 emissions in the United States. In 2015, enteric CH4 emissions were 166.5 MMT CO2 Eq. (25.4 percent of total CH4 emissions) (in text citation). The unit of measure most commonly used to describe greenhouse gas emissions or reductions is a million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. (California Air Resources Board, Climate Change, 2007) In 2015 in the United States, approximately 71%(118.1 MMT CO2 Eq.) of CH4 was emitted by Beef cows and 26%(42.6 MMT CO2 Eq.) by dairy cows through the fermentation process. (5.1 Enteric Fermentation (IPCC Source Category 3A), Agriculture 5-3) Therefore, 91% of CH4 produced through this process was almost entirely from cattle. While enteric fermentation/this process is natural, the scale of livestock breeding is not and is why this process is considered an anthropogenic source of CH4.Manure management is another source of emissions and is usually grouped in with enteric fermentation when talking about CH4 emission from animal agriculture. Manure management plays a large role in how much CH4 is released after the cow has digested the coarse plant material. It’s no surprise that the ingested material that give off methane while in the digestive process continues to release methane into our atmosphere after it has been disabled through natural processes. However, the poor management of this waste is causing serious problems for our environment, for livestock manure also produces CH4 through anaerobic decomposition(a collection of processes in which microorganisms break down plant or animal matter)

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