cows in field

The Misguided Science Behind rBGH And Climate Change

By Samuel Fromartz

Added August 1, 2009. Climate change is clearly the issue of our time, with the potential to impact every aspect of our lives. But with the flood of information, the most specious kind of “science” thrives in this atmosphere, creating its own kind of intellectually polluting greenhouse gas emissions. I’m talking about the recent study which purports to show that genetically modified bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions because it increases the efficiency of cows.

To my reading, this study was a solution in search of a problem – which is how rBGH as a whole can be summed up. It’s a solution that consumers clearly don’t want. It’s sinking, despite the best efforts of its lobbyists from limiting any kind of identifying labels on milk. Indeed, the most recent issue came to a head in Kansas, where then-Gov. Catherine Sibillius thankfully vetoed legislation to ban labeling information.

The only reason to ban such labels is to deny transparency to consumers and to protect the fading market.

One researcher on odairy recently got into a spirited argument about why this drug is so useful. She claimed it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, because the drug requires fewer cows to produce more milk. It’s interesting that this researcher took the time to post the findings on odairy since her papers explicitly argue that small and organic farmers are just the sort of inefficient operations that
increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Better to cram all those cows into CAFOs. In fact, the fewer the better, since concentration, efficiency and synthetic drug injections all go hand in hand of higher milk production and less emissions, or so the researcher argues.

The curious thing about this claim is that the Food and Drug Administration considered it a decade ago and dismissed it. Indeed, the FDA’s analysis of the impact of rBGH use on greenhouse gas emissions found that emissions would either increase slightly or decrease slightly but “the magnitude of the changes will be extremely small and insignificant compared to total worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and methane,” according to a recent article by Food and Water Watch.
The researcher’s argument rested on the assumption that cows produce the vast majority of the dairy industry’s GHG, so if you could get the cow numbers down and milk production up (with rBGH) then you could cut those emissions. But milk projection is directly related to feed intake, and if feed increases, so do emissions.

She dismissed diet as a non-issue, but other studies have clearly shown that ruminent diet clearly effect cow’s emissions. A recent letter by the National Organic Coalition, summing up a number of
these studies, found:

  • that about half of the grain and oilseeds grown in the United States are fed to livestock, and conventional grain-fed beef requires twice as many energy inputs as grass-fed beef. Scientists
    have suggested that reducing feed grains is the single best way to cut GHG emissions in animal agriculture.
  • Diet, from beneficial fatty acids and pasture, can also reduce GHG in cows. In general, studies have found that such additions can reduce methane emissions by about 20%,” NOC’s letter said. Indeed, farmers are experimenting with diets rich in alfalfa, flax and grasses to reduce emissions, as several recent articles attest.

But you won’t find that type of diet in CAFOs, since these cows never see pasture. And of course, once they are in the CAFO, the manure is siphoned off to lagoons (that hopefully don’t leak into groundwater and streams). But these concentrated ponds too leach far more GHG than your typical dried cow dung on a pasture. As the NOC letter states:

The EPA has determined that when manures are stored or treated in systems that promote anaerobic conditions, like liquid storage systems commonly found in CAFOs, the decomposition of manure produces great amounts of methane, unlike when manure is handled as a solid or deposited on pasture, range or paddock lands. Manures spread appropriately on pastures and paddocks produce minimal amounts of methane.

How much methane emissions – a far more potent gas than CO2 - arise from these sources? “In 2007, methane emissions from manure management were 45% higher than in 1990, and increased by 2.5% annually throughout this period. The EPA notes that the majority of this increase was from swine and dairy cow manure, where emissions increased 51 and 60 percent, respectively,” according to Meredith Niles of the Center for Food Safety. This is the result of “efficient” CAFOs.

A final point to consider: pasture itself is recognized as a vast sink for carbon in this country, meaning the plants take carbon out of the air and deposit it in the ground. Indeed, perennial pasture holds far more carbon than cultivated land, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. Rather than polluting, the animals fertilize this carbon sink with manure. According to the Congressional Budget Office:

When farm products like corn and soybeans are given a decent douse of energy-intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides and shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles to CAFOs in California and Arizona to feed cows, the emissions add up.

Clearly farmers will face big issues due to climate change – in the type of crops that can be grown, in potential water scarcity or climatic events like storms, in pest and disease pressures that thrive in warmer climates, and the type of perennial grasses or weeds that thrive with higher temperatures.

These are very real issues that farmers should consider, taking responsible steps to reduce emissions of dairy cows, through modifications in diet, through higher pasture intake and through thoughtful regeneration of waste products.

But what farmers don’t need is a “solution” like rBGH that’s already been written off. Especially when the argument explicitly calls for those same farmers to submit to the CAFO mentality. Essentially the researcher’s mode of thinking is “get big or get out,” but this time because he equates bigness with efficiency and reduced emissions. Curious how the solution is always the same, even as the rationale changes.