Braid: Ottawa comes down hard on methane-burping cows. Are humans next?

The federal government goes after cow farts — but the biggest methane culprits are humans

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The federal government begins its assault on cow burps and farts with the following inspirational message.

“Enteric fermentation is a natural digestive process in ruminants whereby microbial populations in the digestive system assist in the breakdown of feed into more readily available molecules and nutrients.

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“As part of this process, a portion of the feed is converted into methane and released back into the atmosphere by the cattle as an enteric emission through eructation.”

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So true!

“Eructation,” rolled around on the tongue, isn’t a bad substitute for what it really means, which is “burping.” Canadians should be fully aware that cows burp more methane than they fart, although they do both.

Less common in federal language around cows and their distressing penchant for methane eruption is the formal word for farting, for which you have two choices, “flatulence” or “flatus.”

Clearly, this delicacy is meant to discourage tasteless jokes from small children and columnists.

The problem is real, though, and has been of keen interest to Alberta politicians for decades.

It was the late Premier Ralph Klein who said, “I know that at one time, the Arctic was the tropics. And I guess I wonder what caused that. Was it dinosaur farts? I don’t know.”

Today your federal government does know. Methane eructated and flatulated by cattle is a secondary but substantial cause of climate change.

So, too, is gas from moose, elk, deer, and many other creatures less susceptible to regulation.

But the worst offenders by far are humans, each and every one of us expert at using our built-in emission technologies. As a species we are so gaseous and numerous that our methane production far exceeds those of any cud-chewing creatures.

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Much is written on all this, although one has to wonder about the accuracy of facts and figures. Who can measure the totality of human flatulence? And how?

Regardless, Ottawa is on the case. The feds chose Food and Agriculture Day at the COP28 conference in Dubai to release their policy on cattle emissions.

According to the draft presented, farmers who reduce emissions from their herd will earn credits they can sell.

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The announcement even gives credit to Alberta. “For example the draft REME (Reducing Enteric Methane Emissions from Beef Cattle) protocol was informed by Alberta’s offset protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle.”

You see? Ralph Klein really started something.

As usual, Ottawa presents a climate measure as advantageous both scientifically and economically.

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“Each credit represents one tonne of emission reductions. Credits can be sold to facilities that will use them to meet emissions reduction obligations, or to other businesses to meet their low-carbon economy commitments. This means fewer methane emissions, and more financial opportunities for Canadian farmers.”

Some farmers and ranchers aren’t so sure. Brian Allison from central Alberta says his herd – 120 animals – is too small to generate much benefit. He’d be unlikely to participate unless the program were mandatory.

There are ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle – feeding them a certain kind of seaweed, for instance. This is apparently very effective, although not so practical on the Prairies.

Cattle can also be bred with low-emission genetic traits. If the entire dairy herd were bred this way, according to one company, emissions in the national dairy herd could drop 20 to 30 per cent by 2050.

A farmer adds seed and fertilizer to a bin near Lipton, Sask., on May 4, 2021. Troy Fleece/Postmedia

Kyle Larkin, executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada, says farmers and ranchers already face pressure from federal demands to cut fertilizer emissions.

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“It’s fine to put targets out there,” he says, “but we need a plan to be able to get to those targets and if the government was serious into reaching the 30 per cent fertilizer emissions reduction target, or the methane reduction target, there need to be dollars put into best management practices and helping farmers to adapt.”

But Ottawa continues to drop measures on one sector after another. The Liberals are so zealous, in fact, that they might even announce low-emission targets for humans.

Personally, in return for a one-tonne credit, I would forsake some key human fart fabricators – beans, milk, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit – but draw the line at beer and wings.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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