The request for an article about agricultural methane was accompanied by a photo of a cow expelling fire. Originally thinking it was a joke, I quickly learned otherwise. There is hefty debate about all aspects of sustainability… and agricultural methane, though a small slice of the (cow) pie of international sustainability concerns, can impact environmental health.
The Greenhouse Gas Effect begins as a natural process in which earth’s climate is regulated by radiant heat from the sun. Some radiation reaching earth is absorbed by land and oceans, while some is reflected back into space. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (e.g.: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) trap much of this emitted heat, preventing it from radiating back into space (similar to a greenhouse). Greenhouse gases exist and can be released naturally (e.g.: plant matter decay) and this process is beneficial in that surface temperatures are warm enough to enable life on earth. However, human activities like burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation increase amounts of these gases in the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating the greenhouse effect and contributing to what’s termed “global warming.” Among the results are more intense storms (think Hurricane Sandy), heat waves, droughts, flooding and rising sea levels, which affect plants, animals/humans and landscapes.
Rather than focus on skepticism, or FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) scenarios, however, perhaps it is key to recognize that changes occur and behaviors can impact their severity. People are working together globally to mitigate any impacts, including advice about “reducing, reusing, recycling, renewing,” minimizing electricity/hot water use, planting trees, buying local, and so on.
Methane (CH4) can be both a positive energy source and a destructive greenhouse gas. It is said to have a shorter lifespan (approximately 9-15 years) and be emitted in smaller quantities than carbon dioxide (CO2), though its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere is over 20 times greater. Emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas and oil, it can also be generated from the decomposition of organic matter in such places as landfills, wetlands, rice paddies, in termites(!) and agricultural settings. Though a small percentage of global methane comes from the agricultural sector, the gas from ruminant animals, such as cattle, has caused much debate. The grass cows eat is initially stored in the first of four stomach chambers, the rumen. Cows regurgitate the material (“cud”) and chew it again to break it down. Bacteria in the stomach then ferment the plant material, resulting in the production of methane.
For over a decade, scientists, farmers and others worldwide, including groups like the Global Methane Initiative, have engaged the international community in a collaborative effort to ensure cost-effective methane abatement, recovery and energy conversion methods. Among their explorations have been the inclusion of coriander and turmeric in sheep diets, giving garlic to cows, adjusting grain feed to include alfalfa and flaxseed, and feeding cows fish oil (which, some say, will help the heart and circulatory system, thereby improving meat quality).
In Connecticut, several farmers are integrating sustainability measures, such as capturing, fermenting and burning manure to produce electricity. One method utilized in other countries and fairly new to the U.S. is anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion (AD) technology in which methane from manure and agricultural waste management systems is captured and converted into energy for heating, cooling and electricity. In some instances, surplus electricity can be used in neighboring operations or a local utility grid. Digesters have the added benefit of odor reduction and nutrient management, thereby enhancing sanitation and environmental health.
AD facilities are costly, said to run from tens of thousands to several million dollars. The Connecticut Clean Energy and Finance Investment Authority has re-released a request for Proposals (RFP) for AD projects. Commercial, industrial and institutional facilities in Connecticut offering such technologies are eligible for a grant, loan or power purchase incentive (ctcleanenergy.com/rfp: applications accepted through February 27, 2015).
The Freund family (Freundsfarmmarket.com), runs one of Connecticut’s multi-generational farms which was first among those with a methane digester (they built their first in 1976). They have used the digester to produce hot water/heat for their house, office and cow milking parlor. With a plug flow digester, they are now also able to separate liquid and solids. The liquid is put back on the fields to fertilize crops and the biodegradable manure-fiber is used to create CowPots, nutrient-rich seed starter pots (available for purchase). As members of Canaan Valley Manure Agricultural Co-op, the Freunds also work with other local farmers to deal with excess nutrients which can pollute area waterways. Their aim is to “keep clean water clean and dirty water contained.” Though they have made great progress, they are constantly monitoring their practices and believe they are still on the cutting edge of experimental engagement.
While acknowledging that human activity and inconsistent regulations worldwide are prime factors in global environmental problems, Diane and Paul Miller (Fairvuefarms.com) are among local farmers doing their part to mitigate the effects of agricultural waste. They want to build an anaerobic digester and are working through legislative channels to meter and sell the resulting heat/electricity at full value (ctmirror.org/story/states-farmers-feel-left-out-big-clean-energy-programs). Seeing pros and cons in everything, Paul Miller advocates balance and awareness. He uses that approach when considering such things as what to feed his cows to keep them healthy and how to rotate pasture schedules to ensure top nutrition levels. It may surprise some to know that even GMO corns were originally developed to offer hearty, bug-resistant, drought-tolerant feed, and that it takes effort, labor, energy and acres to nourish the world.
Some people argue that eating less meat would save the planet. Others say it’s not so simple and would be dangerous to drastically alter and upset the eco-system. Would alternatives (like soybeans) bring their own environmental impacts? Many think it is feasible to produce meat (milk, cheese and ice cream…) that’s planet-friendly. Wherever one stands regarding agriculture and global warming, negative environmental impacts are no laughing matter.