PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand – How to stop your cow from belching?
This may sound like the beginning of a humorous riddle, but is the subject of a massive scientific investigation in New Zealand. And the answer can make a huge difference to the health of the planet.
More specifically, the question is how to stop cows, sheep, and other livestock from dumping as much methane, a gas that 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.
Since cows cannot digest the grass they eat easily, they first ferment it in many compartments of their stomach or in the rumen, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Every time someone eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, there are environmental costs.
Scientists in New Zealand come up with surprising solutions that could seriously affect these emissions. Among the more promising are selective breeding, genetically modified feed, methane inhibitors and a potential game changer – vaccine.
Nothing is off the table, from feeding the animals more seaweed to giving them a kombucha-style probiotic called “Kowbucha”. One UK company has even developed a wearable harness for cows that oxidizes methane as it is released.
In New Zealand, research has become urgent. As agriculture is vital to the economy, about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared to less than 10% in the US, with the 5 million inhabitants of New Zealand outnumbering 26 million sheep and 10 million cattle.
As part of its carbon neutrality drive, the New Zealand government has pledged to cut methane emissions from livestock by up to 47% by 2050.
Last month, the government announced a plan to start taxing farmers for burping animals, the first move in the world to anger many farmers. All parties hope to catch a study break.
Most of the research takes place on the Palmerston North campus, which some have jokingly called Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.
“I don’t believe there is any other place that is as ambitious in scope as New Zealand in terms of the extent of the technologies studied in one place,” said Peter Janssen, chief scientist at AgResearch, a government-owned company. employs about 900 people.
The research is based on studies showing that methane reduction does not have to harm animals or affect the quality of milk or meat. Janssen said the microbes that live in animals and produce methane appear to be opportunistic rather than integral to the digestive process.
He has been working on vaccine development for 15 years, and has been intensely focusing on it for the past five years. He said it could reduce the amount of methane emitted by cows by 30% or more.
“I definitely believe it will work because that’s the motivation behind it,” he said.
The vaccine would stimulate the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies which would then suppress the production of methane-producing microbes. One of the great things about the vaccine is that you would probably only need to give it once a year, or maybe even once in the animal’s lifetime.
In a similar way, inhibitors are compounds administered to animals that directly suppress methane microorganisms.
According to Janssen, inhibitors can also reduce the amount of methane by at least 30% and possibly as much as 90%. The challenge is that the compounds must be safe for animal consumption and must not pass through meat or milk to humans. Inhibitors also need to be administered regularly.
Janssen said both the inhibitors and vaccines are in a few years before they are ready for the market.
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 cow program may not be too far behind.
Scientists have been testing sheep in chambers for years to find differences in the amount of methane they emit. Low emitting offspring have been bred and produced with low emitting offspring. Scientists are also tracking genetic traits common to low-emission animals that make them easy to identify.
“I think one area where scientists in New Zealand in particular have made great progress is this entire field of animal husbandry,” said Sinead Leahy, chief scientific adviser at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Center. “In particular, a lot of research has been done on low-emission sheep farming.”
Another target is animal feed, which scientists believe can reduce methane production by 20% to 30%.
In one of the campus greenhouses, scientists develop a genetically modified clover. Visitors are required to wear medical boots and gowns and avoid depositing items to prevent cross-contamination.
The researchers explain that because New Zealand’s farm animals eat in fields rather than barns most of the time, methane-reducing feed additives like Bovaer, developed by the Dutch company DSM, are not as useful.
Instead, they try to genetically modify ryegrass and white clover, which are mostly eaten by New Zealand animals.
Thanks to clover, scientists have found a way to increase tannins, which helps block methane production.
“What the team did was to identify the main switch that turns on the condensed tannins in the leaves through their research,” said Linda Johnson, research group leader at AgResearch.
Laboratory analysis shows that the modified clover reduces methane production by 15% to 19%, Johnson said.
The clover program goes hand in hand with the ryegrass program.
Richard Scott, senior researcher at AgResearch, said they were able to increase the oil level in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which, according to the study, should translate into a 10% decrease in methane emissions.
But as with inhibitors and vaccines, the feed program is still a few years from being prepared for breeding. Scientists have completed controlled trials in the US and plan larger field trials in Australia.
However, New Zealand has strict rules banning most GM crops, a regulatory barrier that scientists will have to overcome if they are to introduce modified feed to domestic farms.
In other studies, the dairy company Fonterra is testing its probiotic Kowbucha mixture, and British company Zelp continues to test and refine its wearable harnesses. Other studies have found that red seaweed called Asparagopsis reduces the amount of methane when eaten by cows.
But farmers don’t wait for all the research to bear fruit. At the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the city of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan said they were reducing methane production by increasing productivity.
That includes increasing milk production from each cow, using less processed feed, and replacing dairy cows less often, he said.
“At the farm level, we must do our best to help save the planet,” said Bichan.