Mind the Gas

Frontiers, Ecology, Eat the Street

Eating in public naturally involves following a code of manners, like no belching in many cultures around the globe. But for once, wouldn't it be nice if you could just burp loud and proud?

The Geneva-based World Burping Federation (WBF) is dedicated to removing the stigma of burping by hosting contests worldwide. At the inaugural championships last Friday, 35-year-old pizza chef and competitive eater Tim Janus chugged about two gallons of Diet Coke and Mountain Dew to belch for 18.1 seconds, setting a new record for the world's longest burp. The event focused on duration and did not include decibel burping, which is judged according to loudness and requires special permits as the exercise frequently violates noise restrictions for public places. But not to worry, the WBF's advocacy efforts will expand to include decibel-based and even burp-talking contests in the near future.

Mainstream acceptance of burping may be a ways away, but as the phenomenon is a fundamental part of the digestive process, it's unclear how it became such a widespread taboo. Indeed, Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, notes in her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior: "It is strange, but nevertheless generally recognized, that some inevitable natural phenomena, such as coughing, are socially acceptable, and others, such as burping, are not. (Perhaps it is because society recognizes the necessity of breathing, but ignores digestion as much as possible.) The correct thing to do, therefore, is to treat the burp as if it were a socially acceptable cough."

But not all belching is harmless--in fact, bovine burps are serious pollutants. Cows have digestive bacteria in their stomachs that cause their flatulence to be infused with methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The average adult cow expels 200 to 400 pounds of methane a year, and with about 1.2 billion total in the world, cattle are one of the largest methane sources. According to a report from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, more than all planes, trains and automobiles combined.

Current research on minimizing cattle emissions include methods like changing their feed and developing a methane-minimizing vaccine. And for us humans? You may need to start drinking less soda or maybe head to Bahrain, one of the few remaining places where a belch is considered a compliment. Another burp-friendly destination is Germany, where encouraging the practice apparently originated from the religious reformer Martin Luther, who allegedly said: "Warum pfurzet und ruelpset ihr nicht, hat es euch nicht geschmecket?" (Or: "Why don't you farteth and burpeth, didn't you fancy the meal?")

Bottoms up.

Cover Image Credit: Matt Murphy