Forget the carbon tax. Do we need a cow tax?



Forget idling cars and fossil fuels.  Accordingly to Dina Cappiello in an associated press article on June 21, 2009, what comes out of the front end of America’s 170 million cattle, sheep, and pigs produces about a quarter of the methane released each year in the United States, making it the largest source of greenhouse gas in the country.

But the very effective farm lobby in the U.S. has managed to protect farmers from any legislative efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or to impose anything resembling a carbon tax. The gas that farm animals pass is exempt from legislation currently being considered by Congress to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Concerns about a possible ’cow tax’ surfaced last year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - then under the administration of President George W. Bush released documents outlining how the Clean Air Act could regulate greenhouse gases. While there was no intent to regulate farm animals, a single paragraph deep in the document - a caution by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that if EPA decided to regulate agricultural sources of greenhouse gases, numerous farms would face costly and time-consuming process to acquire permits for barnyard burping - that started the panic.

The Farm Bureau quickly did the math and figured farms would have to pay about $175 for each dairy cow, $87.50 per head of beef cattle and $20 for each hog to purchase permits for emissions.

Administration officials and House Democratic leaders have assured farm groups there is no intention of regulating cows. That has not eased farmers concerns and fear remains about the impact measures to regulate greenhouse gases might have on agriculture.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has called rumours of the cow tax 'ridiculous notions' and a 'distraction.' Indeed, the climate bill now before Congress specifically excludes enteric fermentation - the fancy term for the gas created by digestion and expelled largely by burping - from the limit it would place on greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation directs the EPA not to include it among the various sources that could be subject to new performance standards.

Some lawmakers and farm groups are pressing for the climate legislation to guarantee that farmers will be compensated for taking steps to reduce greenhouse gases. That could lead to farmers getting paid if their cows pass less gas.

Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture starts with one thing, cow burps.  But fitting cows with ridiculous pollution control devices simply won’t work. A more realistic approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock boils down to diet - i.e. reducing the gas content of what goes in and what comes out. 

Stonyfield Farms Incorporated, America’s largest producer of organic yogurt, was the first in North America to launch a program to naturally decrease the enteric emissions of livestock.

For a near decade, the company had been closely measuring and monitoring its carbon footprint. Studies revealed that most of the greenhouse gases it was producing came from milk production - i.e from the cows themselves.

While the company already had developed programs to decrease emissions from feed growing processes, transportation, and farm energy use, tackling the digestive processes of the cows posed a challenge.

Stonyfield launched its pilot program by working with 15 Vermont Organic Valley farms that supplied milk for its yogurt products.  By feeding cows a diet high in natural omega-3 sources, like alfalfa, flax, and grasses, the cow’s main stomach digestion processes were re-balanced drastically reducing the production of the waste by-product methane.

Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield V.P. of natural resources and Director of the Greener Cow Project, stated that, 'Stonyfield Farm has been able to reduce the enteric emissions from cows by as much as 18%, an average of 12%, if every U.S. dairy were to adopt this approach, in less the one year, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we could reduce would be the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road.'

It is not just odor sensitive farmers and concerned environmentalists who would benefit from this type of program.  Stonyfield’s analysis of the milk produced from cows introduced to this diet revealed that the product had higher nutritional value that may help to reduce obesity and cardiovascular disease. They also found that their cows were healthier and happier.

All in all, it’s a win-win situation for everyone. The farmers are happy to avoid a tax; the environmentalists are happy with the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; the politicians are happy that they won’t be offending the powerful farm lobby, and the cows - well as the old ad used to say, ’good milk comes from contented cows.’

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