New Zealand Investigates How To Reduce Methane Emitted By Cows

New. Zealand Investigates How To Reduce Methane Emitted By Cows

PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand (AP) — How do you stop a cow from burping?

It may seem like the beginning of a joke, but it is the subject of a scientific investigation in New Zealand. And the answer could have profound effects on the health of the planet.


Specifically, the question is how to prevent cows, sheep and other farm animals from belching up 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. regarding global warming.

Since cows cannot easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment it in multiple compartments of the stomach, a process that releases enormous amounts of gas. Every time someone eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, there is an environmental cost.

New Zealand scientists are coming up with some amazing solutions that could significantly reduce those 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 seaweed to giving them a probiotic. A British company has even developed a harness for cows that oxidizes methane as it is expelled.

In New Zealand, the investigation has taken on some urgency. Because livestock is a fundamental element of the economy, approximately half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms. New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered by 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 by up to 47% by 2050.

Last month, the government announced a plan to start charging taxes on animal burps, a world-first move that has angered many farmers. All parties are hoping that science will give them a break.

Much of the research takes place on a campus in the city 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, a scientist at AgResearch, a government-owned company that employs about 900 people.

The research builds on studies indicating that methane reduction need not harm animals or affect the quality of milk or meat. Janssen says that the microbes that live in animals and produce methane appear to be opportunistic rather than integral in digestion.

He has been working on the development of a vaccine for 15 years, and has focused intensely on it for the last 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 production of the methane-producing microbes. One of the great advantages of a vaccine is that it would probably only need to be given once a year, or even once in the animal’s lifetime.

Similarly, inhibitors are compounds administered to animals that directly affect methane-producing microbes.

According to Janssen, the inhibitors could also reduce methane by at least 30%, and perhaps as much as 90%. The challenge is that the compounds have to be safe for animal consumption and not pass through meat or milk to humans. In addition, inhibitors must be administered regularly.

Both the inhibitors and the vaccines are a few years away from being ready for the market, Janssen said.

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 might not be far off.

Scientists have been testing sheep in chambers for years to determine differences in the amount of methane they emit. Sheep that emit less methane have reproduced and have low-emitting offspring. Scientists have also tracked down 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 progress is animal husbandry,” said Sinead Leahy, scientific adviser at the New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. “And, in particular, there has been a lot of research into low-emission sheep farming.”

Another target is animal feed, which scientists believe has the potential to reduce methane production by 20-30%.

In one of the greenhouses on campus, scientists are developing genetically modified clovers. Visitors should wear medical gowns and booties, and avoid leaving items on the floor to prevent any cross contamination.

The scientists explain that since New Zealand farm animals eat most of the time outdoors and not in barns, methane-reducing feed additives such as Bovaer, developed by the Dutch company DSM, are not as helpful. .

Instead, they are looking to genetically modify the ryegrass and white clover that New Zealand animals eat.

With clover, scientists have found a way to increase tannins, which help block methane production.

“What this team has done is identified … a master switch that turns on the condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, head of AgResearch’s science group.

Laboratory analyzes show that modified clover reduces methane production by 15% to 19%, Johnson said.

The clover program is accompanied by a ryegrass program.

Richard Scott, Principal Scientist at AgResearch, said they have been able to increase oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which studies show should translate to a 10% drop in methane emissions.

But, like the inhibitors and the vaccine, the feeding program is still a few years away from being ready for implementation. The scientists have conducted controlled trials in the United States and are planning a larger field trial in Australia.

However, New Zealand has strict rules that ban most GM crops, a regulatory barrier that scientists will have to overcome if they want to introduce GM plant fodder to the country’s farms.

In other research, dairy company Fonterra is testing its probiotic concoction Kowbucha (a pun on kombucha tea and the English word for cow: cow), while British company Zelp continues to refine its wearable harnesses. Other trials have indicated that a red algae called Asparagopsis reduces methane when eaten by cows.

But ranchers aren’t waiting for all the research to bear fruit. At the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, rancher Aidan Bichan says they have reduced their methane production by increasing their efficiency.

He said that includes increasing milk production from each cow, using less processed food and replacing milking cows less frequently.

“At the farm level, we have to do our bit to help save the planet,” Bichan said.