If you live in one of our nation’s urban areas – Miami, Austin, Los Angeles, New York or Portland you might have seen on TV this little ditty promoting Burger King's newest offering, the “Whopper with Reduced Methane Emissions Beef.”
Let's all sing along:
“When cows fart and burp and splatter,
Well, it ain’t no laughing matter.
They’re releasing methane every time they do.
And that methane from the rear goes up to the atmosphere,
And pollutes our planet, warming me and you.”
As it turns out cows and other rudiments burp out a lot of methane as they digest their food (“oh the rumen is connected to the reticulum, the reticulum is connected to the omasum, and the omasum is connected to the abomasum...and the whole glorious chain results in the belching of methane and to a lesser extent carbon-monoxide).
It turns out it’s very bad news when it comes to spewing methane into the atmosphere. That’s because methane – pound for pound – is 25 times more efficient at trapping heat in than carbon monoxide over a 100 year period.
So cutting down methane emissions is a worthy goal to slow the impacts of climate change.
For the record compared with other sources of methane mucking up the atmosphere agriculture plays a smaller role than a lot of other industries.
The Environmental Protection Agency says “in 2018, methane (CH4) accounted for about 9.5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.” Livestock belching was responsible for 28% of that total (if you’re interested you can add another 9.7% for manure emissions).
For those keeping score the University of Minnesota says cow digestion produces between 30 and 50 quarts of methane and CO2 every hour.
It sounds like a lot but it is all relative. Cattle belching is small potatoes to the methane injected into the atmosphere by the transportation, electricity, and production industries. But if scientists could somehow modify a cow’s diet to produce less methane that would be a good thing. Right?
And that’s where Burger King comes in (although as we’ll see your mileage may vary on just how effective is the Whopper with Reduced Methane Emission beef patty is cutting down on global warming).
What the folks at BK have done is to conduct a number of relativly limited studies on whether feeding lemongrass can reduce methane belching. BK suggests their preliminary test results – confirmed by the University of California at Davis -- show adding 100 grams of lemongrass daily to feed reduced methane emissions by an average of 33 percent a day in the final months before the animal was slaughtered.
That sounds promising. But there’s a huge disagreement over the data which has yet to be published or peer reviewed. Some researchers put the lemongrass methane emission reduction at more like 3 percent.
As for BK sample size...the first round of research out of Autonomous University of the State of Mexico involved four (I got that right) cows. Since then there have been a couple of other studies with small sample size. UC Davis did one of their own over ten weeks with nine cows.
The hope was to move testing/research to a feed lot. BK purchased 50 head hoping to scale up the tests. And that’s where reality has set in. Because as it turns out lemongrass is expensive. The Fence Post Magazine looked into it and found adding 100 grams of lemongrass a day to a cows feed for 90 days would add $167.51 per head. Let’s be frank. Ranchers simply are not going to make that kind of investment unless they are sure they’ll get it back from selling their cattle.
Still, the search for the methane belching silver bullet is ongoing. Recently Penn State researchers say adding roughly a tablespoon of 3-Nitrooxypropanol to the feed of dairy cows reduced methane belching by about a third.
Dutch health and nutrition giant DSM holds the patent on 3-Nitroxypropanol and the company has yet to set a purchase price on the feed supplement.
It may be that BK’s current attempts to lower methane belching is akin to the cow jumping over the moon, but we need to fully embrace and applaud the effort. Agriculture and in fact all methane producers must rapidly think outside the box to find ways to limit emissions. Our planet’s well being depends on it.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.