Sunday, 13 December 2009

Flatulence and Biodiversity

The Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change (COP15) is due to step up a gear in the next week. Much has been written both for and against the concept that our climate is undergoing change induced by man. As a geography undergraduate in the early 1980's I was taught that the changes that were starting to be seen even then were the result of actions taken in the Industrial Revolution! For me that has always been a rather sobering thought, and my own view as a result has been that less emphasis should be put on the debate as to causes and more on the moral and ethical reasons to act to reduce our polluting of the world as soon as possible. None of us is very keen to have other people's litter in our front gardens, and yet many of our actions are polluting the world for future generations.

The media have concentrated a great deal on carbon dioxide as the gas to be concerned about in all of this. As with everything that anyone comments upon, the truth is far more complex. Carbon dioxide is used as a measure for future warming, but there are several other gases that can play a very significant role in the future health of planetary life, the behaviour of which is cause for concern and the emissions of which it could be a good idea to scale back. These gases include:
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Methane (CH4)
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6)
Water vapour (H2O)
Ozone (O3)
A major role in the climate warming debate is also given by scientists to methane, which has been identified as having a far more significant role in the trapping of heat in the atmosphere than the more talked about carbon dioxide. This gas is given off through the biodegrading of organic material as it rots (landfill), as it reacts with air in a waterlogged state (peat and sphagnum bogs) or as it is digested (flatulence in humans and other animals).
Over the past 2 years detailed research into the methane production of cows has been undertaken for DEFRA by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth University as part of a 3 year contract. This research has involved looking at the results of some intriguing methods of 'catching' the flatulent methane, such as an Argentinian project catching emissions using plastic bags, and placing the animals in plastic tunnels at Aberystwyth University (although sheep behaved better in the plastic tunnels, apparently, with fewer escape plans). The research has been aimed in particular at identifying methods of reducing methane emissions in farm livestock.
Some interim results that were published earlier in the project suggest that, contrary to popular belief, cows burp more than they fart. What makes this research relevant to this blog, is that it has also gone into the digestive behaviour of cows and whether a change of diet has an effect upon their flatulence. At present, the majority of cattle farming is undertaken on fields that are planted with perennial ryegrass and no other grass. It isn't hard to see how this could be very useful research. I, personally, know what the effects of eating baked beans or over-cooked sprouts are on my own methane production....
Cows appear to belch a great deal less if their diet consists of a mixed fare of grass species in flower, white clover and bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). This actually means that fields that look more attractive to most of us are (arguably) better for everything, and that species poor, improved perennial ryegrass pasture is (arguably) not better for everyone. This next year coming up has been given the name the Year of Biodiversity. It is an interesting thought that in 2010, when the report on cow methane production is published, (unless something very strange happens) it will promote a chain of actions that will help to address climate change gas production, but that it will also help in the promotion of biodiversity through the increase in diversity of seed mixes for cropping for meat and dairy cow farming. Personally, I would really like to see a large scale return to the traditional wildflower meadow, but at least the promotion of more variety in the seeding of these fields will look a great deal more attractive and also have the benefits of digestive health for the animals and methane emissions will be lessened.

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