Friday, 18 September 2009

Forgive me Lord, for I have drunk a glass of milk

There is gathering momentum for product labels to be required to state their “carbon footprint”. So that consumers can feel guilty about contributing to climate change and perhaps do something about it. Nothing illustrates how difficult it is to calculate the environmental impact of daily life , than the attempt to label a milk carton with its carbon footprint. When it comes to environment impact, nothing is what it seems.

Now, what can be the carbon footprint of a carton of milk. After all its as natural a product as can be.

On first thought nothing at all. A little later it strikes us – yes the act of transporting it and packaging it surely has a carbon impact. And what about refrigeration – another significant carbon impact. Slowly milk is starting to look a little less saintly.

But wait a minute. Maybe we should revert to the old Indian habit of getting fresh milk from a cow or buffalo milked in front of your house. Then no transportation, refrigeration and all that carbon spewing stuff.

But what about the stuff the cow eats to produce the milk. Now cattle feed is grown somewhere (carbon spewing fertilizer eeks !) manufactured somewhere and transported. All this adds to the carbon. Right we’ll tell the milkman; no artificial feed for your cow ; it can graze on the natural grass, or more likely, eat paper if you are a self respecting city cow in India.

But it so happens that the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emission in the supply chain of milk is not in the feed; not in the carton; not in the transportation; not in the refrigeration. Its in bovine flatulence. No, I’m not joking. It’s a real fact. Cows produce so much methane that Arthur C Clarke has written in one of his books that if an alien civilization approached earth, the first signal that there is life on this planet would be from the chemical footprint of our atmosphere caused by bovine flatulence.

If you still don’t believe me, click hereand go to the bottom of the article.

Now the ahem, noxious output of the cow is governed by the nature of the feed. Natural grass feeding may actually be more harmful to the environment. Back to square one.

Just goes to show that nothing is simple when it comes to the environment. Popular fads may actually cause more harm than good – see an example I wrote about sometime ago here. What is needed is a comprehensive research and clear advice from a global organization of high credentials. Focus on the big ticket items only. And then all of us can act on them. And stop making people feel guilty on petty stuff.

Cheers – gulp down your glass of milk.


athivas said...

Ok, this was it:
Thank you,Lord,for I don't drink milk:)

Oh!No! I so love cows(I gave up drinking milk bcos of that), so please don't blame it on them!! Don't they feel it arrogant to ask them stop eating natural grass, for the sake of us wanting to bask in sophistications. This is bad:(

kiwibloke said...

thanks for bringing this up. Not just Hot Air. This is one of the biggest challenges in many lifestock based economies (New Zealand included) By the way, connecting back to your earlier blog on punting, there is something called the NZCX (NZ Carbon Exchange) where many punters are gambling today. Many of the good ol' farmers of kiwiland now find this a more lucrative proposition than milking the cow!

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that cutting out meat (beef?) one day of the week reduced a family's carbon footprint more that switching to a hybrid car. It didn't quite make sense but then who knew about bovine flatulence :-)

mahesh said...

Thanks for this interesting post. being debated quiet hotly these days across the globe. The 'Big 4' are coming up with lots of articles and CFO material on this - including carbon trading like Kiwibloke mentioned.

There was also an article I read somewhere around chairman of P&G talking about water shortage in the world and how people are only worried about Fuel shortage where as per P&G survey the world would run out of potable water far earlier than fuel.

I also read about this same thing a few days later in an article around what is the real cost of things (in water terms) for different things we do. The most shocking one was coffee where one cup of coffee costs 140 litres of water and a cup of tea about 30 litres.

Add to that the methane produced in the universe for the little bit of milk in the tea/ coffee :)

Wonder how the world was running before all these research were carried out?

I feel good that I only drink tea - doing my deed for the universe by saving 100 litres of water every time I drink a cup :)

Will forward some of the reports to you by email...

thethoughtfultrain said...

Ha ha!! :-) So the cows are the culprits huh? What else can we do but just go and hug the darling?? :D

FYI, the link you attached (the one about a post which you had written earlier) brings us back to the page.

Sandhya Sriram said...

when we were kids, every year, we used to go to our Native Village. the means of livelihood is farming and the produce is rice, tamarind, coconuts and some other stuff. In the middle of the house, there is large wodden bin going upto ceiling. the bin has no openings except a small provision to take rice from the bottom and a big lid on the top to close the tall bin. the lid is opened once in 6 months when the crop is done and the rice is filled in the bin for the balance year. my aunt used to draw a bowl of rice from the bin every day for cooking. however, she would never exceed her bowl becuase emperically, she has observed that only then it would sustain her until the next crop with some buffer for visitors and festivals and a sometimes a delay in the next crop.

It is a similar case here. We cannot stop ourselves from drawing on it but need to know the limits. there are no scientific rules but within our limited capability, we must try whatever we could.

personally i feel it is good to feel a little guilty about it as well so that we are conscious every time we draw.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

The other awful statistic about India, is that for every litre of milk produced by Operation Flood which brought plentiful milk to the cities, the cost is 1200 litres of water, most of which comes from groundwater in the case of Gujarat. LArge parts of Saurashtra are now saline because of this.

Anonymous said...

Great article.. loved reading it.. thanks..


Ramesh said...

@athivas - Really stopped drinking milk ? Love cows that much ? Wow !!
BTW, of course I'll pick up your tag. was just pulling your leg on "girlie tags". Will do over the weekend.

@kiwi - In a country with more sheep and cows than people, perfectly understandable :)

@Anon :)

@Mahesh - Yes fresh water shortage is a huge issue. Our "water footprint" is as bad as our "carbon footprint"

@Dada - Yes; Operation Flood was good in many ways, including uplifting the community there, but one unintended consequence is the water problem you have mentioned.

@Sandhya - Nice analogy. My grouse against the guilt inducement is that it is often focused at trivial joys of life. Focus on the big issues and let some joy be - else we'll be a colourless world

@Exkalibur - Thanks very much

Ramesh said...

@thoughtful train - Don't hug a cow. You'll get a kick for your efforts :) :)

Hey thanks for pointing out the broken link. My proxy is being absolutely stubborn ; but I'll correct it somehow.

Aashish said...

There was a time I used to read Maneka Gandhi's weekly article in Mid-Day. Her points were thought provoking, but I had to make a choice - stop eating veggies (they are soaked in color, loads of pesticide), meat (sorry Ramesh, but I enjoy my steak), give-up milk, blah blah. I stopped reading Mid-Day.

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