Methane and climate change

(Originally published September 29, 2015 on

Domesticated ruminants (cattle, sheep, and goats) in North American basically replaced the corresponding wild ruminants (bison, elk, deer, pronghorns, and moose). (1). So in regards to methane and a reductionist point of view, if there still were the approximately 110 million wild ruminants (instead of the domesticated ones) on the land in North America, would those reductionists push to remove those bison, elk, moose, pronghorns and deer from the landscape to reduce enteric methane, since all of those wild animals belched as well?

Historically there were also large herds of ruminants on many other parts of the globe as well as other now extinct large mega fauna like Wooly mammoths and Mastodon not to mention much larger areas of wetlands all emitting methane, yet methane levels didn’t start to significantly rise until the industrial age began.

One reason methane levels remained flat was because cattle and other ruminants (wild and domesticated) lived in intact grassland ecosystems and helped build healthy soils that contain soil microbes called methanotrophs that reduce atmospheric methane (2). Thus maintained grassland ecosystems function as methane sinks, and bank as much as 15% of the earth’s methane (3) Tillage for crops reduces the soil’s capacity to bank methane (as does exposed uncovered soil) plus also releases carbon into the atmosphere (4). Use of synthetic fertilizers also adversely impacts soil methanotrophs (5). Glyphosate in no tilled systems according to industry funded research doesn’t impact soil microbial activity. Though research by other researchers contradicts this industry perspective and details how herbicides like glyphosate adversely change the makeup of soil microbes (6).

Though to put enteric methane levels into perspective since such numbers are often exaggerated for ideological reasons (7) according to the 2014 UN Climate Change Convention held in December in Lima, Peru, the analysis of GHG’s when converting other gases to CO2 equivalents found that in the US (similar number in the EU) in 2012 enteric fermentation accounted for 2.17% of GHG emissions (26.79% of agriculture emissions with all agricultural emissions in total being 8% of total GHG emissions) (8). Moreover, enteric methane may be further reduced through improvement in diet and other methods , though these strategies provide enough content for a whole other collection of essays that’s already been written (Livestock Production and Climate Change, edited by Malik, Bhatta, Takahashi, Kohn, and Prasad).

Meanwhile the methane from fracking and natural gas extraction, transportation and refining, in general, apparently has been underestimated significantly maybe by 5 times or 500% per some recent studies on this topic (9). Not to mention China is massively increasing their use of natural gas and fracking. Coincidentally, the largest increases in methane levels occurred in the 1960’s when natural gas use increased significantly- nearly ten-fold. (10). Cattle inventory hasn’t increased. US inventories are the same as they were in the 1950’s. (Source USDA) While global inventories are the same as they were in the 1970’s. (Source Beef 2 Live). The huge increases in meat consumption have largely been due to increased consumption of CAFO chicken and farmed fish.

So rather than fixate on all livestock, simply don’t eat feedlot finished beef or any meat from livestock raised in CAFO’s reliant on intensive industrial agricultural methods. Plus, if one is really concerned about methane emissions, it might make even more sense to shut off, or at least reduce, the natural gas one uses for cooking and heating and then, as the technology advances, instead use electricity from clean energy sources (e.g. wind and solar) to power induction cook tops and electric furnaces. This is especially true for chefs and restaurants, since natural gas use in the industry is very high. Fixating, exaggerating and misplacing blame often distracts attention away from the real culprits and causes of issues like global warming.

  1. Hristov, Alexander 2011. Wild Ruminants Burp Methane, too. Penn State University
  2. Jones, Christine 2014. Ruminants and methane. The Natural Farmer, Summer 2014, B-21
  3. Singh, Jay Shankar 2011. Methanotrophs: the potential biological sink to mitigate the global methane load. Scientific correspondence Current Science, VOL. 100, NO. 1, 10 January 2011 29
  4. Singh, Jay Shankar and Shashank Tiwari and D P Singh 2015.Methanotrophs and CH4 sink: Effect of human activity and ecological perturbations. Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability (April 2015) 3(1): 35-50
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kremer, Robert J. and Nathan E. Means 2009. Glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant crop interactions with rhizosphere microorganisms. European Journal of Agronomy 31 (2009) 153-161
  7. Chao, Angelique 2009. Climate chicanery. From Animal To Meat
  8. United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. Summary of GHG Emissions for United States of America 2014.
  9. Revkin, Andrew J. 2013. New study finds us has underestimated methane levels in the atmosphere. NY Times November 25, 2013.
  10. Jones, 2014.

3 thoughts on “Methane and climate change

  1. Congratulations on a logical and well researched article, more people should be educated that well managed cattle can be net sequesters of carbon by increasing soil biota.


  2. I’m pretty sure that methane is only a (big) problem when it escapes unburned, “uncombusted”. So no, people should feel free, if not be encouraged, to cook with methane. Especially given where A LOT of electricity comes from. It is very inefficient and expensive to heat with electricity. Terrible advice, even if I agree with the grazing analysis!


    1. It’s not the burning of methane that’s the issue. It’s fugitive emissions from the extraction of methane via hydraulic fracturing, coal bed gas, etc (as well as leaky old infrastructure) that’s the issue.

      And how do you think electricity is generated? Via natural gas that’s largely now extracted these ways that emit a lot of CH4. Coal generation has and is being replaced by natural gas generation of electricity.

      When the electricity is generated by renewables and stored in better batteries, inefficiency isn’t as much of a problem since that energy is being locally generated. Not to mention with induction cook tops, they don’t generate nearly as much heat, so there are savings on HVAC energy costs to provide cooling as well as with make-up air. So you’re not taking a systems view to energy use..

      Though again, the point is with renewables, there aren’t any fugitive emissions for natural gas extractions. So sorry, you don’t even understand the underlying problem, so your criticism completely missed the point of the article.


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