This blog has been contributed by Nivedita Mishra.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation."

Worldwide there are about 1.5 billion cows and bulls. These emit dozens of polluting gases, including methane. This means that 2/3rd of all ammonia comes from cattle. The methane produced by 2 cows per year is comparable to the CO2 produced by a car per year. Methane, this heat-trapping pollutant plays havoc with the environment. This aggravates climate change in India.

Comparing numbers

Production of Methane by Cows-
Methane is produced in the digestion tract of the animal. Gases are produced while chewing and released when the cows exhale, fart, or burp. Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture calculated that one cow can produce over 100 kg of methane annually. This is approximately two tonnes of CO2 - approximately the same as two round-trip flights between India and Japan.

Incidentally, methane production indicates inefficient digestion. These emissions need to be controlled for dairy farming to be environmentally sustainable. Studies and experiments are being conducted in several countries to arrive at solutions. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Controlling Methane Emissions by Cows-
A study by Yale School of Forestry has some interesting results. It concluded that feeding a particular seaweed to cattle can drastically reduce methane emissions. Animal scientist Ermias Kebreab’s experiment showed a reduction of methane by almost 50 percent.

Cattle were fed on dried algae called Asparagopsis mixed with molasses. After eating, their breath was analyzed. It showed a drop of  58 percent in methane. A pertinent side effect - it increased the milk yield as the digestive and nutrient processing efficiency improved.

Since all dairy units may not have access to seaweed, there are other options. In Switzerland, an SME has developed a feed additive called Agolin Ruminant that has a similar effect. It dramatically increases milk production while resisting the production of methane. It is developed from a natural blend of cloves, coriander oil extract and wild carrot. Journals like Science Direct have talked about reducing methane emissions. They suggest plant oil supplements mixed with cattle feed to reduce methane emissions from cows. Inclusion of flaxseed, the Indian ‘alsi beej’ is another effective and easily available option.

Steps taken by India in this regard-
India has taken ingenious steps to reduce methane emissions from cows. It started with the need to address the emissions from non-productive and aging cows in gaushalas. This concept has prevailed in India’s farm-based economy since Vedic times.

Cows on the roads in Bundelkhand

Bundelkhand, one of India’s most backward areas, had 1100 cows for every 1000 people. Only 58 percent of these cows produced milk. The fodder-based economy suffered various setbacks. These were low productivity, no rainfall, depleting groundwater, and unreliable energy. There were traditional gaushalas for non-productive cows. These were dependent on religious donations and small funds from state gaushala ayogs. Development Alternatives (DA), a leading not-for-profit for innovative and sustainable solutions came to the rescue.

Under the USAID Methane to Markets Scheme, DA created methane-powered captive plants. These plants convert the methane gas generated into bio-gas used to meet energy requirements. A former cost center turned into a profit center for locals.

Women’s self-help groups joined the Development Alternatives’ mandate to convert ‘waste to wealth’. Eight hectares of government wasteland was allotted to run a particular gaushala.  50 women formed a women’s federation named ‘Sankalp Swashakti Mahila Mandal’. They started a livestock-based livelihood center that would generate supplementary revenue for the members. The initiative is now a viable economic zone. It has a bio-gas energy unit and produces spices, vermicompost, and milk.

Converting Waste to Wealth

People are increasingly becoming environmentally conscious. They understand that greenhouse gases like methane severely impact climate change. It may not always be possible to control methane emissions through the expensive feed. Efforts are directed towards developing affordable solutions. The Gaushala experiment is an example of how converting waste gas into a fuel can make a big difference. It generates energy as it provides livelihoods and opportunities. This encourages community participation in sustainable and profound ways.

Reference links-
1. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences
2. Feed Strategy
3. The Hindu Business Line
4. Science Direct
5. Development Alternatives
6. How Stuff Works
7. Time for Change