PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand — How do you stop a cow from burping?
It might sound like the start of a humorous riddle, but it’s the subject of a huge scientific inquiry in New Zealand. And the answer could have profound effects on the health of the planet.
More specifically, the question is how to stop cows, sheep and other farm animals from belching out so much methane, a gas which doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is at least 25 times more potent when it comes to global warming.
Because cows can’t readily digest the grass they eat, they ferment it first in multiple stomach compartments, or rumen, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Every time somebody eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, it comes at an environmental cost.
New Zealand scientists have come up with surprising solutions to reduce these emissions. The most promising options include selective breeding, genetically engineered feeds, methane inhibitors and, potentially, a vaccine.
There are many options, including giving animals seaweed or giving them “Kowbucha” probiotics. One British firm even created a harness that allows cows to eat methane while they urinate.
In New Zealand, the research has taken on a new urgency. Because farming is central to the economy, about half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared to less than 10% in the U.S. New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered by 26 million sheep and 10 million cattle.
As part of a push to become carbon neutral, New Zealand’s government has promised to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47% by 2050.
Much of the research is taking place at a Palmerston North campus, which some have jokingly taken to calling Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.
“I don’t believe there’s any other place that has the breadth of ambition that New Zealand has in terms of the range of technologies being investigated in any one place,” said Peter Janssen, a principal scientist at AgResearch, a government-owned company that employs about 900 people.
Underpinning the research are studies indicating that reducing methane doesn’t need to harm the animals or affect the quality of the milk or meat. Janssen stated that the methane-producing microbes in animals are opportunistic and not integral to their digestion.
He’s been working on developing a vaccine for the past 15 years and has focused intensively on it for the past five years. He said it has the potential to reduce the amount of methane belched by cows by 30% or more. He said that he believes it will work because it is motivated to do so.
A vaccine stimulates an animal’s immune to make antibodies. This would reduce the production of methane-producing microbes. One big upside of a vaccine is that it would likely only need to be administered once a year, or even perhaps even once in an animal’s lifetime. Inhibitors are substances that can be administered to animals in order to directly reduce the growth of methane microbes.
Inhibitors could also reduce methane by at least 30% and perhaps by up to 90%, according to Janssen. The challenge is that the compounds need to be safe for animal consumption and not pass through the meat or milk to humans. Inhibitors must also be regularly administered.
Both inhibitors and vaccines are some years away from being market ready, Janssen said.
But other technologies such as selective breeding, which could reduce methane output by 15%, will be rolled out onto sheep farms as early as next year, Janssen said. It is possible that a similar program will be developed for cows.
Scientists have for years been testing sheep in chambers to chart differences in how much methane they belch. Low-emitting animals have been crossed and given offspring. Scientists have also been tracking genetic characteristics common to low-emitting animals that make them readily identifiable.
“I think one of the areas that New Zealand scientists, particularly, have made some great progress is in this whole area of animal breeding,” said Sinead Leahy, the principal science advisor at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. “And particularly, a lot of research has been done into breeding low emissions sheep.”
Another target is the feed that animals eat, which scientists believe has the potential for reducing methane output by 20% to 30%. Scientists are working on genetically modified clover at one campus greenhouse. To prevent cross-contamination, visitors must wear medical scrubs and booties. The scientists explained that methane-reducing additives such as Bovaer (developed by Dutch company DSM) aren’t very useful for New Zealand farm animals.
Instead, they are looking to genetically modify the ryegrass and white clover that the New Zealand animals predominantly eat.
Scientists have discovered a way for methane to be blocked by increasing the tannin content of clover.
“What this team has done is they’ve actually identified, through their research, a master switch that switches on condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, a science group manager at AgResearch.
Laboratory analysis indicates the modified clover reduces methane production by 15% to 19%, Johnson said.
The clover program goes hand-in-hand with a ryegrass program.
Richard Scott, an AgResearch senior scientist, said they have been able to increase the oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which studies indicate should translate to a 10% drop in methane emissions.
But like the inhibitors and vaccine, the feed program is still some years away from being farm ready. Scientists have completed controlled tests in the U.S. and are planning a bigger field trial in Australia.
However, New Zealand has strict rules that ban most genetically modified crops, a regulatory barrier that the scientists will need to overcome if they are to introduce the modified feed to the nation’s farms.
Also, Fonterra dairy is testing its probiotic Kowbucha mixture and Zelp British is still working on its wearable harnesses. Other trials have indicated that a red seaweed called Asparagopsis reduces methane when eaten by cows.
But, farmers don’t wait for the results of all their research. On the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan said they’ve been reducing their methane output by getting more efficient.
He stated that this includes increasing milk production per cow and using less processed food, as well as replacing less often-milking cows.
” “At farm level we have to do our part to save the planet,” Bichan stated.
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