Much has been made of the belches of dairy cows. Reports from various environmental organizations and vegetarian activists suggest that raising cows for meat and milk is the leading cause of climate change (even worse than the trucks that move meat, veggies and dairy around the continent), due to the methane in their stomachs. Progressive foodies who believe in "sustainable" eating have long pointed out that, were cows to simply eat grass, and not corn or soy -- the diet of the vast majority of cows raised for American consumption today -- they wouldn't produce the ruinous methane.

A new experiment by Stonyfield Farms could change the dairy industry for the greener, without having to move all the cows to huge pasture (surely the preferred solution, but change of this scale would be slow). Not only does changing the cows' feed to alfalfa and flaxseed reduce the methane content, making the cows healthier and more fun to be around, but it also improves the health of the milk they produce.

The story is in the cow's stomach, accustomed through evolution to eat grass, especially "spring" grass. This made sense in the ecosystem of the traditional Western farm; cows would eat grass on the less fertile parts of a farm, and pay back with nice rich fertilizer to keep the veggies growing strong. But after World War II, when the U.S. government began to subsidize corn and soy farmers, the feedstock was so cheap that dairies started serving it up as the main diet for their animals.

The cow's digestive system wasn't built to process corn and soy, however, and that's when the methane problem began. A cow fed corn and soy will, according to UC Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, expel 200 to 400 pounds of methane a year. Groupe Danone had studied their cows, who were healthier in the spring, and discovered that the spring grasses are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, the healthiest of all the fatty acids, and important for balancing the other fatty acids in human diets.

In Vermont, this program is only being tested at organic farms -- where the cows already eat grass in the spring and summer. So the effects on overall methane production are limited. But in France, where Groupe Danone has applied the feed programs to industrial farms, too, the effect has been huge and meaningful. Not just for the environment, but for the cows' health, happiness and longevity.

It's worth pointing out that feeding cows the way nature intended makes healthier cows who produce more milk, for more years, and is healthier for the humans who drink it. It's also worth noting that what brought all this trouble (and what continues to make it easier and generally cheaper to continue the methane-packed flatulence) was government crop subsidies. The free market ... not at work.

Milton Friedman wouldn't be pleased. Who knew he was such an environmentalist and cow-lover?


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