food sustainability technology

So, methane-catching face masks for cows?

Farmed animals are a big contributor to global emissions, accounting for around 14.5% of greenhouse gases. Cattle farming for beef and dairy is the biggest problem, and with over a billion cows on the planet, it’s a major obstacle to a sustainable future. Some of the environmental impact of cattle farming is from producing the feed, but the trickiest bit is the animals themselves. There’s really no easy solution to the methane from cows. It’s just part of their digestion. They burp and fart a lot, and there’s no way around it.

But that isn’t stopping people from trying.

One avenue of research has been around feed. Researchers have been experimenting with different additives that would change cow digestion, with some hopeful results around seaweed. As I reported last year, that’s just beginning to be adopted at a significant scale.

This week I read about another innovation: methane-catching face masks for cows. Developed by the Zero Emissions Livestock Project, these are harnesses that cows wear around their necks, with a extension over the nose that chemically neutralises methane. 95% of methane is from the front end of the cow, so thankfully nobody needs to invent a similar device for the back.

The idea won a design award last week, which is where I heard about it. And it’s clever, I’ll give them that. But what does it say about our attitude to animals? What about the right of a cow to be a cow? And is there not a simpler solution?

The ZELP website has a big banner at the top saying ‘reducing emissions while improving animal welfare’ at the top in all caps. It claims their project “uses cattle harnesses to neutralize methane, improve animal welfare, and get organizations closer to net zero.”

They go on to say that they are doing it “for the animals”, and that there’s is “a way to reduce methane that’s good for the animals”. It “promotes animal welfare”, apparently. “The cow and the planet get healthier.”

I read on to try and work out why this is an animal welfare innovation.

If I understand correctly, they’re suggesting it’s better for the cows because the mask includes live monitoring that farmers could use to keep track of animal health. Like a fitbit for a cow, I suppose. That’s a technology that already exists in other forms, so this isn’t a direct benefit of ZELP. And elsewhere on the site, live monitoring is described to farmers as “insights that make you more profitable,” so it’s not necessarily all about the cow.

ZELP point out that their harness doesn’t get in the way of eating, and that cows don’t seem stressed out by them. But no cow would choose it either. It’s something that we need to add to the already long list of indignities suffered by the animals we farm. If this were widely adopted, every cow would be fitted with a harness at around 6-8 months, and it would then have it strapped to its face constantly until the day it is killed.

It seems like a rather sad technology. We should always be wary of techno-fixes, especially ones that intrude on animal life. But it’s also sad because the easy option is staring us in the face with big innocent eyes: just eat less beef. It’s widely acknowledged that many people in developed countries eat too much meat anyway. We’d be better off cutting back on the red meat, and we’d see incidences of heart disease and obesity fall.

But our economic system isn’t set up for less of anything. Capitalism needs growth. The system demands more. More cows, more beef. The logic of sustainability is to find ways to do that without emissions, no matter how surreal the resulting ‘innovations’.

Face masks for cows seem to me like a perfect symbol for the insanity of capitalism’s growth problem.

5 comments

  1. I wouldn’t argue about eating less beef, since ‘agribusiness beef’ has many other adverse impacts than methane. And I agree with proper scepticism about techno-fixes, and wouldn’t want to argue or undermine your central arguments around the insanity of capitalism’s growth. However, with the methane mask idea, perhaps we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good? If we can’t immediately persuade everyone to cut beef production, could it be better for now to encourage it to be less bad at least? And (since AFAIK ‘cow fitbits’ aren’t extensively used yet), perhaps having a double incentive to fit a monitoring+neutralising mask *would* actually increase bovine welfare on balance? Particularly if the methane issue gave a ‘critical mass’ of pressure to mandate them?

    1. Of course, we don’t want to snipe at useful solutions. The big problem with supporting a half-solution like this one is that people take it as a reason not to do the more obvious thing. I hear this all the time with the airport. It’s okay to expand the airport because electric planes are on their way, apparently. Since most people don’t stop to ask when we should expect those planes and if it’s even remotely realistic, it just acts to defuse the urgency of climate action.

      A half solution like this one is the perfect excuse for everyone to keep doing what they have already decided they’re going to do – which is nothing.

      This is of course how it is actively marketed. Hey beef industry, everything’s going to be fine if you just stick a mask on your cows. And as you say, that does nothing to solve all the other related issues.

      1. Yes, agreed. I think this highlights the major underlying need for everyone to deploy better analysis and discourse. Shows how vital learning/education (in its broadest sense) is for our future. And I know that’s exactly what you’re working to achieve through this blog site.

  2. Large animals require the same care and protection as small pets. Surgical tools are the basic need to treat various animal diseases. But the tools used for the larger animals are different. So, veterinary surgeons use large surgical tools to treat giant animals such as buffalos, cows, sheep, etc.

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