How to stop a cow from burping?
It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it’s the subject of a scientific research in new zealand. And the answer could have profound effects on the health of the planet.
Specifically, the question is how to keep cows, sheep and other farm animals from spewing so much methane, a gas that doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is at least 25 times more potent than CO2 in the atmosphere. it’s about global warming.
Since cows cannot easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment it in multiple stomach compartments, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Every time someone eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, there’s an environmental cost.
New Zealand scientists are proposing some surprising solutions that could significantly reduce these emissions. Among the most promising are selective breeding, genetically modified foods, methane inhibitors and even a vaccine.
Nothing is out of the question, from feeding the animals algae to giving them a probiotic. A British company has even developed a cow harness that oxidizes methane as it’s expelled.
New Zealand and a livestock problem
In New Zealand, research has acquired a certain urgency. Since livestock are a vital part of the economy, about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock farming. New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered 26 million sheep and 10 million cows.
As part of a plan to achieve carbon neutrality, the New Zealand government has promised to reduce methane emissions from farms in up to 47% by 2050.
Last month, the government announced plans to start taxing animal burps, a world-first move that has angered many farmers. All sides are hoping science will give them a break.
Much of the research takes place on a campus in the town of Palmerston North.
“I don’t think there is anywhere else that has the breadth of ambition that New Zealand has in terms of the range of technologies being researched in one place,” said Peter Janssen, scientist at AgResearch, a company owned by the government which employs about 900 people.
The research builds on studies indicating that methane reduction it must not harm the animals or affect the quality of the milk or the meat. Janssen says microbes that live in animals and produce methane appear to be opportunistic rather than integral to digestion.
He has been working on developing a vaccine for 15 years and has been intensely focused on it for the past five years. He says it has the potential to reduce the amount of methane burped by cows by 30% or more.
“I certainly think it’s going to work, because that’s the motivation to do it,” he said.
A vaccine would stimulate the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies, which would reduce the production of methane-producing microbes. One of the great advantages of a vaccine is that it probably should only be given once a year, or even once in the animal’s life.
Similarly, inhibitors are compounds fed to animals that directly affect methane-producing microbes.
According to Janssen, inhibitors could too reduce methane by at least 30%, and perhaps up to 90%. The challenge is that the compounds must be safe for animal consumption and not pass through meat or milk to humans. Furthermore, inhibitors must be administered regularly.
Both inhibitors and vaccines are just a few years away from being ready for market, Janssen said.
A solution for sheep?
But other technologies, such as selective breeding, which could reduce methane production by 15%, will be introduced to sheep farms as early as next year, Janssen said. A similar program for cows may not be far off.
Scientists have been testing sheep in chambers for years to determine the differences in the amount of methane they emit. The sheep that emit the least methane have reproduced and have low-emitting offspring. Scientists also traced genetic characteristics common to low-emitting animals that make them easily identifiable.
“I think one of the areas where New Zealand scientists have made great strides is animal husbandry,” said Sinead Leahy, scientific adviser at the New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Research Center. low-emission sheep farming”.
Another target is animal feed, which scientists say has the potential to reduce methane production by 20-30%.
In one of the campus greenhouses, scientists are developing genetically modified clovers. Visitors should wear medical gowns and booties and avoid leaving items on the floor to avoid any cross-contamination.
Scientists explain that because New Zealand farm animals eat most of the time outdoors and not in barns, methane-reducing feed additives such as Bovaer, developed by Dutch company DSM, aren’t as helpful. .
Instead, they are trying to genetically modify the ryegrass and white clover that New Zealand animals eat.
With clover, scientists have found a way to increase the tanninswhich help block the production of methane.
“What this team has done is identify… a main switch which activates the tannins condensed in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, director of the scientific group of AgResearch.
Laboratory analyzes show that the modified clover reduces methane production between 15% and 19%, Johnson said.
The clover program is accompanied by a ryegrass programme.
Richard Scott, Principal Scientist at AgResearch, said he was able to increase the oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which studies say should translate into a 10% drop in methane emissions.
But, like the inhibitors and the vaccine, there are still a few years left so that the power program is ready for your application. Scientists have conducted controlled trials in the United States and are planning a larger field trial in Australia.
However, New Zealand has severe rules ban most GM crops, a regulatory hurdle scientists will have to overcome if they are to introduce GM plant fodder to the country’s farms.
In other research, the Fonterra dairy company is testing its probiotic blend kowbucha (pun on kombucha tea and the English word for cow: cow), while British company Zelp continues to refine its wearable harnesses. Other evidence has indicated that a red alga called Asparagopsis reduces methane when eaten by cows.
But farmers don’t wait for all the research to pay off. At Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan says so have reduced their methane production increasing its efficiency.
He said it includes increasing milk production from each cow, using less processed foods and replacing dairy cows less frequently.
“At the farm level, we have to put our own grain of sand to help save the planet” Bichan stated.
The author is a reporter for the Associated Press.