Antibiotics and Methane


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


 While carbon dioxide is often painted as the main criminal in climate change, a far more deadly, and less talked about gas, is methane. UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change estimates that methane accounts for approximately 16% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Despite a relatively smaller portion, methane is much more harmful for climate change.

Methane is a super-insulating gas – making the earth much warmer than carbon dioxide can. It is more potent than carbon dioxide in capturing the sun’s radioactive force and traps more heat in the atmosphere. Scientists have calculated that its ‘global warming potential’ may be 28 times more than that of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide emissions have not increased since 2013. Yet the temperature in 2017 has gone up by another 1 % .  The reason is a startling rise in the emission of methane. In the early 2000s, methane concentration in the atmosphere was rising annually at about 0.5 parts per billion (ppb). In 2007 methane started rising rapidly, and in recent years it has spiked to annual increases of 9.9 ppb and 12.5 ppb. The current atmospheric concentration is 1,853 ppb.

Methane is not produced in by factories or cars. It is produced by meat eaters. Animals reared for meat and milk are the major contributors of the gas-  chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs. All plant eating animals emit methane gas in the form of burps and gas through the anus.  The Journal of Animal Science says that cows produce between 250 and 500 litres of methane gas every day – which is huge.

Every year the number of animals, kept for killing by humans, rises. In 2017, 70 BILLION animals were killed for food. With huge numbers of cattle being reared for meat and dairy, methane production has gone up exponentially. Recent estimates show that the livestock industry alone annually produces a quantity of methane which equals 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

India, China and Brazil together are the top producers of meat and dairy. Brazil and India are in the top three largest exporters of beef in the world. India is also the largest producer of milk in the whole world. More milk is produced in India than all the European Union countries combined. Between the three of us we create 70% of the methane being released into the air (the other methane producers are coal and rice, and China and India are number one in both) .

The sheer number of animals is destroying the planet as we know it. You eat meat and a tsunami destroys parts of the Philippines. You eat meat and a cyclone hits Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu. The connections have to be made.

But I come back to the point of this article. If the sheer numbers of cattle were not enough, there is another factor that is creasing the amount of methane that the cattle emit: antibiotics.

Most meat/milk producing animals are grown in huge factory farms . You can call them dairies and ranches but they are holding prisons for animals. The animals are overcrowded, badly fed, treated with the utmost violence. As a result, most of them – from chicken to cattle – are ill. The cattle industry grows every year, and the techniques to extract the largest possible profit are also becoming more sophisticated. It is common practice to regularly inject cattle with antibiotics, specially tetracycline, to help them grow larger, gain weight quicker, and mitigate diseases they have picked up through bad sanitation and  food in the factory farm. Livestock animals are fed 80% of the world’s antibiotics.

There are a number of problems with this – it builds antibiotic resistance in animals and humans consuming the meat or dairy. But my purpose in this article is different. The problem with antibiotics most relevant to our discussion is the fact that they increase the level of methane emissions from cattle.

Research conducted at the University of Colorado in Boulders shows that antibiotic treatment more than DOUBLES the methane production of the animal. If a cow is producing 500 litres, it now produces 1000 litres of methane every day. The study indicates that tetracycline treatment reduces the natural bacteria in the stomach of cows and encourages the growth of methanogenic archaea – methane producing microbes – in the intestinal tract, altering the balance permanently.

The dung of cows treated with tetracycline had a different microbial balance, leading to the production of nearly 50-80% more methane than the dung of non-treated cows. Both the dung and burps of antibiotic-fed cows have been observed to have high methane content.

On one hand the world is looking for ways to reduce methane production by promoting renewable sources of energy, introducing energy efficient devices, setting safety parameters for landfills, checking natural gas leaks and finding ways to reduce coal.

On the other hand we are feeding increasing amounts of antibiotics to cattle, dangerously increasing their levels of methane emission. More than 1.4 billion cows are being bred globally to feed humans. Animal agriculture as a whole, which includes over 10 billion animals, now contributes 20% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Millions of dollars are being spent by researchers in New Zealand on developing a vaccine to help reduce the burping of cows! German scientists are breeding a genetically modified cow who will produce less methane. Why not consider the simple option of keeping cattle better, improving the feed and holding conditions in factory farms so that antibiotics are not needed or used. The methane emissions will immediately come down by half.  

The problem is that the meat and dairy industry want to increase their profits TODAY. Less money spent on welfare of the animals and more spent on cheap antibiotics that keep them alive till they are killed makes more money today. They would much rather put money into a genetically modified cow who is bigger and fatter with bigger teats and shorter legs .

A 2006 United Nations report indicates that more greenhouse gases are produced by raising cattle than cars and trucks combined.

The core of the problem lies in the fact that we have allowed businessmen to get away with enormous cruelty for almost a century now. Naturally this will start to affect us as well , if you believe in the law of Karma.

Removing antibiotic usage from the animal rearing industry will reduce methane. But it can only be done if the cattle themselves are well treated, allowed to roam free, given good food. The best way to remove methane is, of course, to stop eating meat. And the demand reduces, so will the supply.

Methane stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than carbon dioxide. If we were to stop producing it, it would disappear from the atmosphere in 4-9 years and global warming would come to a halt. It all depends on what you eat and how little you care about your own survival.


Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org


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