A colleague of mine enjoys challenging my views with humorous jabs; recently, when I was decrying the fact that our society (myself included) is apathetic in regards to the pollution effects of fossil fuels, he suggested that the world’s one-and-a-half billion cows are to blame for the greenhouse gas problems.
[Image found at Science Hax]
“A cow,” he informed me, “farts out as much pollution as a car.”
I looked it up; he was almost correct, but it is cow burps (scientific types, and other straight-laced characters, prefer the term eructation), not flatulence, that releases the bulk of the methane — a significant greenhouse gas component — from cows into the atmosphere.
In fact, ruminant animals (cows, sheep and water buffalo in particular) account for almost thirty percent of the methane in the environment. It is a big enough problem that there are even plans to add antibiotics to cattle feed to impede the production of methane. Personally, I’d prefer that we decrease our consumption of beef, which would reduce the population of cows required on the planet, thereby lowering the eructation of ruminant-methane. Our planet maintains a natural balance, but humanity has a nasty tendency to push past the level that the environment can correct for.
When I reported my findings back to the colleague who had prompted my research, he nodded; I was thus encouraged, and went on to explain that the real problem was our diet: apparently, in Canada and the United States, animal consumption accounts for about seventy percent of our dietary intake, and we could reverse the methane-eructation problem if we reduced our livestock herds by modifying our eating habits. The carbon footprint of vegetables, beans and grains is a fraction of that created by animal husbandry. And, if our society reduced its consumption of animals, we would receive the added bonus of a healthier population.
“Okay,” my esteemed colleague said; “but what about the whales?”
“Huh?” I replied.
And then he began to (humorously) malign whales for their colossal contribution to global warming due to their excessive exhalation of carbon dioxide (CO2), a familiar greenhouse gas pollutant. “There have been estimates,” my colleague informed me, “that whales contribute the equivalent of forty-thousand CO2-belching automobiles.”
So I did some more research…
And he was correct, as far as he went; however, he hadn’t looked at the big picture.
Australian researchers, while studying baleen (krill eating) whales, have discovered that although whales exhale huge quantities of CO2, their feces are responsible for the reduction of greenhouse gases.
Whales move their bowels at the surface and, because their feces are rich in iron, this acts as a fertilizer for phytoplankton, the wonderful marine plant that uses CO2 from the atmosphere to drive photosynthesis. In fact, it turns out that the reduction of CO2 by phytoplankton, as powered by the iron from whale feces, is twice the amount exhaled by the whales; therefore, the net contribution of whales is beneficial in the battle against greenhouse gasses and global warming. This is an example of how nature — if we take humans out of the equation — performs its own checks and balances.
So, when I was back at work again, I reported the findings to my colleague.
He nodded, accepting my research, and said, “Okay, but what about…”
But I didn’t hear the rest because I’d stuck a finger in each ear and walked away, humming loudly…