Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cows With Gas: India's Global Warming Problem

Indolent cows languidly chewing their cud while befuddled motorists honk and maneuver their vehicles around them are images as stereotypically Indian as saffron-clad holy men and the Taj Mahal. Now, however, India's ubiquitous cows — of which there are 283 million, more than anywhere else in the world — have assumed a more menacing role as they become part of the climate change debate.By burping, belching and excreting copious amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas that traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide — India's livestock of roughly 485 million (including sheep and goats) contribute more to global warming than the vehicles they obstruct. With new research suggesting that emission of methane by Indian livestock is higher than previously estimated, scientists are furiously working at designing diets to help bovines and other ruminants eat better, stay more energetic and secrete lesser amounts of the offensive gas.Already the world's largest producer of milk, India will have to yank up production from the current 100 million metric tons to 180 million metric tons by 2021-22 to keep pace with growing population and expanding disposable incomes. Livestock such as cows, buffalo, goats, sheep, horses and mules are indispensable to India's rural economy — whether yoked to plow land, raised for milk and manure, or harnessed to pull carts to move goods and people. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the animals contribute 5.3% to total GDP, up from 4.8% during 1980-81. But, says Dr. K.K. Singhal, head of Dairy Cattle Nutrition at the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal in northern India, "while livestock plays a crucial role in the economy, global warming is becoming a huge worry. We're trying to find indigenous solutions, because our realities are very different from the West.For starters, most Indian livestock is underfed and undernourished, unlike robust counterparts in richer countries. The typical Indian farmer is unable to buy expensive dietary supplements even for livestock of productive age, and dry milch cattle and older farm animals are invariably turned out to fend for themselves. Poor quality feed equals poor animal health as well as higher methane production. Also, even when western firms are willing to share technology or when western products are available, these are often unaffordable for the majority in India. For instance, Monensin, an antibiotic whose slow-release formula reduces methane emission by cows, proved too expensive for widespread use in India. So the emphasis for Indian scientists is on indigenous solutions. "We know we cannot count on high quality feed and fodder," says Singhal, "No one will be able to afford it. What we have done instead is develop cheaper technologies and products." One example is urea-molasses-mineral blocks that are cheap, reduce methane emission by 20%, and also provide more nutrition so they're easier to sell to illiterate farmers who don't know a thing about global warming but want higher milk yields. an article from the TIME MAGAZINE


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