It's a hot topic, and I've just read this article that debunks the claim I'm about to make - But even though I read it, I still don't really understand it. I'm happy to change my opinion if I understand the facts.

Suppose we have a closed system, imagine a pasture in an aquarium. Light goes in, grass grows, dies, decays, is recycled, all that good stuff. I imagine the air going into the aquarium is pretty atmospheric, and the air exiting has been changed depending on the amount of CO2 that is absorbed through photosynthesis, the amount of O2 is absorbed through plant respiration, and the amount of greenhouse gasses produced from decaying plant material in the thatch/soil.

(I think I have that right - my biology education doesn't go past high school level)

Now suppose we add a cow into the mix. If anything, to me, the cow reduces net emissions while it grows because less grass decays, and is instead turned into cow. Once the cow is mature, in this closed system, it's only eating and "processing" the grass that was already part of this natural cycle of growth/decay.

Here's where I think I am possibly going wrong:

  1. Does the cow increase the amount of "decay"? Does eating the grass make it re-grow faster, thus speeding up that natural cycle?
  2. Or, does the cow output different (more harmful) greenhouse gasses than the grass would normally produce through decay?

In short, how does the cow increase emissions? It can only have eaten what has already been grown - And what has grown is doomed to someday decay and be re-released into the atmosphere anyway. I don't particularly like having contrary opinions, so help me out!

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Are you familiar with the phrase "gut microbiome"? $\endgroup$
    – user40950
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Cell I am -- Is the bacteria in our gut so different from the bacteria in the soil that would break down the plant material? Do they release different gasses? If so, that's probably the answer I'm looking for $\endgroup$
    – Aww_Geez
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 15:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Consider that the methane problem isn't really about cows grazing on land, it's cows in factory feedlots. After all, a couple of centuries ago North America had a similar biomass (estimated 30-75 million, and they're bigger than domestic cattle) of buffalo grazing, without apparent problems. Buffalo are similar enough to cows that they can interbreed, producing "beefalo". $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I had just looked up bison populations then vs. cattle now, funny that you mention it. I understand the process has been industrialized, but they're still consuming organic compounds, right? We're just moving them elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Aww_Geez
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Aww_Geez: I don't know why buffalo grazing, or FTM open range cattle grazing, should result in different amounts of methane being emitted, or even if it does. Maybe it's a different diet, feedlot animals eating hay or silage instead of fresh grass. Or maybe it's just statistical manipulation by anti-meat people. I just think it's something that seems to have been overlooked, and needs explanation. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 16:17

1 Answer 1


Ruminant digestion produces a lot of methane.

Cows are ruminants, and ruminants produce a LOT of methane. Sheep and goats are also ruminants but their are far fewer of them. Ruminants use methanogenic bacteria to breakdown their food, these bacteria, as there name implies release methane as a byproduct. Ruminants produce a lot more methane than other herbivores becasue of this.

Decaying grass normally produces CO2 as do many native herbivores. Cows like most herbivores only convert a very small amount of the grass they eat into cow. Herbivore digestion is not terribly efficient, not surprising the grass does not what to be easy to digest.

Farming also puts a lot more herbivore mass on a piece of land than it would normally have, further increasing the effect, that is the purpose of farming to get more out of the land than simple hunter/gathering could. This is an issue becasue methane is a FAR more effective greenhouse gas than CO2.

Feeding cattle often involves replacing existing ecosystems which high yield feed crops and this can release a lot of CO2 and/or Methane depending on the original ecosystem just from the change, but it also means that feed is now producing methane instead of CO2 it would be if eat by non-ruminants.


Source 2

  • $\begingroup$ I see, I think my error in thought was that "all decomposition will release carbon into the atmosphere, what does it matter if it comes from a cow or a pile of compost?". . . Turns out different methods of decomposition create different gasses, of varying harm. $\endgroup$
    – Aww_Geez
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 18:53

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