India's gift to global warming
NEW DELHI. Indolent cows languidly chewing their cud while befuddled motorists honk and maneuver their vehicles around them are images ...
NEW DELHI. 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.
Last month, scientists at the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad in western India published a pan-India livestock methane emission inventory, the first ever, which put the figure at 11.75 million metric tons per year, higher than 9 million metric tons estimated in 1994. This amount is likely to increase as higher incomes and consumption rates put more pressure on the country's dairy industry to become even more productive.
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. So the emphasis for Indian scientists is on indigenous solutions.