When engineering a green solution has gone too far…

By Chad Kruger

Reprinted from: WSU CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability

I’ve seen a lot of crazy ideas in the realm of agricultural technology and even toyed with a few crazy ideas myself. Crazy ideas seem to have an appeal in our society that exceeds any rational expectation for the likely success or concern regarding the downside of any given technology. Perhaps this is because people are always looking for the next revolutionary technology like tractors, hybrid seeds, and solar fence electrifiers. Or perhaps it’s because we’re hard-wired to expect technological silver bullets to solve distinctly human problems. In fact, I suspect the reason that our own crazy (and not quite perfect) idea for a household-scale biogas reactor is among the most visited pages on the CSANR website is because it conjures up images of this infamous science fiction idea: Time Travel.

Who wouldn’t want to have that?

Some of the more outlandish ideas I’ve encountered were undertaken to solve seemingly serious problems, and it wasn’t the technology that was outlandish as much as it was the rationale behind the application. Usually, these ideas are hatched by well-meaning people (often scientists) who are concerned about the need to use technology to address a serious problem like greenhouse gas emissions.

As discussed here before, many people are quite concerned about reports that livestock production is a substantial source of global greenhouse emissions, in part through direct methane emissions from ruminant animals (aka “enteric fermentation”). To date, there have not been any viable technological strategies proposed for reducing direct livestock methane emissions that don’t have serious downsides or conflicting impacts. The most often cited idea is to shift ruminant livestock diets away from forages (which they are evolutionarily designed to eat) toward refined, energy-rich diets (corn) which reduces enteric emissions … but that strategy runs counter to common perceptions of sustainability in livestock production (e.g. cows should eat more grass and less refined grains).

A friend recently sent me a link to the latest crazy idea targeted at the issue of livestock methane emissions – one that still allows “a cow to be a cow”. Well, sort of. I have no doubt that this technology could “work” (at least for docile livestock – all the animals I’ve ever had would tear it to shreds the first day!) and could likely be an effective mechanism for dramatically reducing global livestock emissions. However, for me this raises the much more fundamental question of “should we really walk down this path?”

A summation of the research of the late, distinguished WSU sociologist Gene Rosa is that the drivers behind global greenhouse gas emissions are growth in population and consumption – distinctly human factors that I heard him argue can’t be solved with technology. I’m not sure I agree with him on the last point, since the increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas are primarily a direct consequence of human’s harnessing and using fossil fuel technology. I think his main message, however, is that our constant search for technological silver bullets diverts our attention from the more fundamental sustainability problems we face.

Should we really be walking down the path of outfitting cows with methane backpacks? Or, does this “crazy idea” simply go too far?


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