Can We Have Happy Cows and a Clean Climate?

Can We Have Happy Cows and a Clean Climate?
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Why you should care

Because Switzerland’s embrace of humane agricultural practices may be a roadblock to its climate goals. 

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If there’s one thing they don’t need, it’s more cowbells. Edith and Robert Albin’s tiny organic farm in the Swiss hamlet of Tersnaus is picture-postcard idyllic, with bell-bedecked cows roaming the Alps during the warmer months, then wintering in airy stalls.

It’s a meat- and cheese-eater’s dream: Calm and happy livestock that spend their lives well-cared for and well-fed before being slaughtered and sold as grass-fed steak. But there’s a dark cloud on the horizon, and it’s made of methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia. According to researchers from Switzerland’s Federal Office for Agriculture:

Free-range barns reduce stress on animals, but they can release nearly 50 percent more ammonia into the environment than contained barns, where cows are confined.

Switzerland is the second-largest emitter of ammonia in Europe after the Netherlands, responsible for about 43,000 tons per year. Nearly 75 percent of nitrous oxide and 80 percent of methane emissions can be traced to the agricultural sector. With the 2015 Paris climate accord, nations around the world pledged to cut emissions of those gases, along with ammonia, by 30 percent from 1990 levels. But countries like the Netherlands and Switzerland aren’t on target to meet those goals, and part of that is due to the farms: Open barns allow more gases to escape into the atmosphere.

“I personally find it horrible that they want to limit [animals’] access to open air,” Edith Albin says, adding that there are other ways to protect animals and the environment, like reducing the number of cows per farm.

Between 1990 and 2000, says Sabine Schrade, a researcher at the Federal Office for Agriculture, farmers took steps to contain the hazardous gases. But the onset of free-range farming has seen them rise again. Agriculture is also responsible for more than 25 percent of fine dust mass, which can dirty groundwater and cause damage to moorlands and forests — as well as human lungs. A 2017 study by the Max Planck Institute estimated that halving agricultural ammonia emissions could save 250,000 lives each year globally.

Closed, traditional barns trap gases, but larger, open barns provide more area for urine and manure to ferment and the fumes to escape. The researchers found that cows in traditional stalls emit 16.4 grams of ammonia per livestock unit per day. Cows in open barns with outside access emit 24.5 grams per unit per day, an increase of nearly 50 percent.

Other factors are at play as well. While traditionally, Swiss farmers have moved their cows between the Alps and open stalls as the seasons change, many are opting to keep cows in stalls year-round. It’s cheaper and allows the farmers to keep more livestock — but this too ups emissions slightly, as it forces the cows to live at higher temperatures and stay in close proximity rather than spread out to graze.

Some Swiss taxpayers complain that farmers have already gotten plenty of government cash and little has changed.

To be sure, cows aren’t the only problem: Fabienne Thomas, head of the energy and environment department of farm lobbying group SBV, points out that only 12.5 percent of Swiss emissions comes from farms. Besides, if there were no cows, Switzerland could be opening itself up to different problems. “It’s a societal wish to have a happy cow,” Thomas says. “On the other hand, we need to keep society fed.”

Farmers do have options. Cleaning out stalls frequently and storing manure in closed containers, along with changing field fertilization practices, help reduce emissions even when cows are in open stalls. But farmers say they’ll need money to implement such changes, even as some Swiss taxpayers complain that farmers have already gotten plenty of government cash and little has changed. Climate and agricultural policy are both on the ballot in a Sept. 23 referendum, ahead of a global gathering in Poland to check in on everyone’s progress with their overall climate goals.

For now, says Albin, those concerned with both money and the environment can still make a change to save both: Eat less meat.

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