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Climate Solution: Eliminate the Fartiest Animals

January 17, 2010
In my mind climate change is one of the least important aspects of a much-needed discussion about food production. But just try telling that to the Australian papers this week and last, who gave a ridiculous number of paragraphs to the pressing issue of which animals fart the most.

I guess the idea is: if humans are going to be so stubborn about changing their carbon intensive ways, then why don’t we just get rid of the fartiest animals? Actually, that general idea is not at all new, and a quick search reveals that the discussion has been going on here in Australia for quite some time as well. But for some reason it has resurfaced in the last week.

A story in the print version of The Australian recently presented a ranking of methane emissions per head per year of various animals, which had kangaroos near the bottom (the online version is here, but no ranking). Of course, cattle and other ruminants were near the top.

The obvious, if naive knee-jerk reaction (see here, and here for criticisms) to such data is to propose replacing our gassiest livestock with species that  might do a little better in polite company. And of course, there’s no shortage of ‘roos around here. George Wilson and Melanie Edwards, who originated the study that is fueling all this discussion, make this case in an article on ABC:

Kangaroos are animals that don’t burp methane because they have different micro-organisms to help them digest food. If we were to replace some of the cattle and sheep in Australia with kangaroos we could reduce the number of animals producing methane and at the same time promote natural habitats instead of hoof-damaged pastures.

Wilson and Edwards’ work has led others to call for the culling and/or eating of feral camels as a great way to save carbon emissions. The negative impact of these animals on the local environment is apparently not enough to inspire people, but the vision of millions of camel farts wafting into the air may be just what we need to inspire real action.

And here’s another brilliant use of your tax dollars: genetically engineering a “burp-less sheep.” The graphically named Dr. Goopy and colleagues are hard at work to defy the normal inner workings of this hapless animal. They recognize, though in ominously vague terms, that there could be obstacles involved:

Methane is the exhaust from livestock, and – just as you can’t put your hand over the exhaust pipe of a car and expect it to keep running – we’re treading carefully to reduce emissions without causing other problems.

All of these ideas–especially the one that involves a total remaking of the Australian meat industry, rather than just the internal organs of an entire species–present major economic, social, and political challenges. They could also confer various environmental benefits that have nothing to do with climate change (well, I’m not so sure about the gas-free sheep). But all this is a side show to the main discussion: climate change.

Here’s the thing. If implemented, the overall impact of these ideas on climate change would be marginal to negligible. Basically unmeasurable. But the impact on so many other aspects of our daily lives might be huge. So why does climate change cloud the debate about:

  • The ethics of the meat industry
  • The overall ethics of the food industry
  • The environmental impacts of various food systems
  • The impact of feral animals on ecosystems
  • The health consequences of our eating habits
  • The socio-cultural underpinnings of our eating habits
  • The list goes on…
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