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Methane: ruminant livestock a minor player in atmospheric levels

Methane is an important greenhouse gas that contributes to global heating. But methane emissions from ruminant digestion play a minor part in atmospheric methane levels, according to a recent article published on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Animal Production and Health branch.

Atmospheric methane has stabilized at 1999 levels, though livestock numbers have been increasing by an average of about 17 million per year, according to UN FAO data. "At this time there is no relationship between increasing ruminant numbers and changes in atmospheric methane concentrations, a break from previously assumed role of ruminants in greenhouse gases."

Methane is an important subcycle of the carbon cycle. Methane (CH4), like carbon dioxide (CO2), is a transparent, odorless gas. Per gram, methane has about 21 times the greenhouse potential of carbon dioxide, but unlike carbon dioxide it breaks down fairly quickly in the atmosphere.

Methane is produced during anaerobic fermentation of plant material. In the carbon cycle, lignin and cellulose are typically broken down by methanogenic bacteria, such as are present in the digestive systems of ruminant herbivores and termites, and which cannot survive in the presence of oxygen.


This is particularly exciting news as the methane debate seems to be a major red herring still. While many people have accepted that livestock can improve soil health and sequester carbon, they are still concerned about the methane production. also has a good study to support the concept that methane is not as much an issue and that the quality of forage also factors in. Unfortunately, there are Canadian studies saying that grain fed cattle produce less methane that grassfed.

Thanks Ann for the reference; has a good page noted above. Also, the recent news on atmospheric methane is not good. According to NOAA ( methane rose in 2007 after a decade of not rising. The NOAA scientist Dlugokencky blames the increase on industrialization in Asia and wetland emissions from the Arctic and tropics. Also there has been worrisome news recently from the Siberian Arctic on seafloor methane emissions.