NORTH PALMERSTON, New Zealand –
How do you stop a cow from burping?
It sounds like the beginning of a humorous puzzle, but it is the subject of a major scientific investigation in New Zealand. And the answer could have a profound impact on the health of the planet.
More specifically, the question is how to prevent cows, sheep, and other farm animals from emitting too much methane, a gas that doesn’t last as long as atmospheric carbon dioxide but is more powerful. at least 25 times when it emits. global warming.
Because cows cannot easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment the grass in multiple compartments of the stomach or rumen, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Every time someone eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, it costs the environment.
New Zealand scientists are coming up with some surprising solutions that could make a big dent in those emissions. Among the more promising are selective breeding, genetically modified feeds, methane inhibitors and a potential game changer – a vaccine.
There’s nothing to talk about, from feeding the animals more seaweed to giving them a kombucha-style probiotic called “Kowbucha”. A British company has even developed a belt worn by cows to oxidize methane as it burps.
In New Zealand, research has taken on a new urgency. Because agriculture is so central to the economy, about half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared with less than 10% in the United States, New Zealand has 5 million people, 26 million more. sheep and 10 million cattle.
As part of its drive to become carbon neutral, the New Zealand government has promised to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47 per cent by 2050.
Last month, the government announced plans to begin taxing farmers for animal burping, a world-first move that has angered many farmers. All sides are hoping they can get away with science.
Much of the research is taking place at a campus in Palmerston North, which some have jokingly called Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.
Peter Janssen, a principal scientist at AgResearch, a government-owned company, said: “I don’t believe there is anywhere else as ambitious as New Zealand in terms of the scope of the technology being studied. save anywhere”. employs about 900 people.
The basis of the research is studies that show that reducing methane does not necessarily harm the animals or affect the quality of milk or meat. The bacteria that live in animals and produce methane appear to be more opportunistic than integral to digestion, Janssen said.
He has been working on developing a vaccine for the past 15 years and has been intensely focused on it for the past 5 years. He said it has the potential to reduce cow burping methane by 30% or more.
“I definitely believe it will work, because that is the motivation to do it,” he said.
A vaccine would stimulate the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies, which would then reduce the production of methane-producing bacteria. A big advantage of a vaccine is that it may only need to be given once a year, or maybe even just once in the animal’s life.
Working in a similar way, inhibitors are compounds administered to animals that directly reduce methane bacteria.
According to Janssen, inhibitors can also reduce methane by at least 30% and possibly up to 90%. The challenge is that the compounds need to be safe for animals to consume and not pass through meat or milk to humans. Inhibitors must also be used regularly.
Both the inhibitor and the vaccine are several years away from being ready to market, Janssen said.
But other technologies such as selective breeding, which can reduce methane production by 15%, will be rolled out to sheep farms as early as next year, Janssen said. A similar program for cows may not be far off.
Scientists have for years tested sheep in a chamber to chart the difference in the amount of methane they burp. Low-emissions have been bred and produced low-emission progeny. The scientists also tracked down genetic traits common to low-emissions animals that make them easy to identify.
“I think one of the areas where New Zealand scientists have made some great progress is across the globe,” said Sinead Leahy, principal scientific advisor at the New Zealand Center for Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research. Department of Animal Breeding. “And in particular, a lot of research has been done to breed low-emission sheep.”
Another target is the food the animals eat, which scientists believe has the potential to reduce methane production by 20% to 30%.
At a greenhouse on campus, scientists are growing genetically modified clover. Visitors must wear medical boots and scrubs and avoid putting things down to prevent any cross-contamination.
The scientists explain that because farm animals in New Zealand spend most of their time eating in the field rather than in a barn, methane-lowering feed additives such as Bovaer, made by Dutch company DSM Lan grows, not useful.
Instead, they’re looking to genetically modify the rye and white clover that New Zealand animals primarily eat.
With clover, scientists have found a way to increase the amount of tannin, which helps to suppress the production of methane.
“What this team has done is they’ve actually identified, through their research, a key switch that activates tannin concentrates in leaves,” said Linda Johnson, scientific group manager at AgResearch.
Johnson said laboratory analysis showed modified clover reduces methane production by 15% to 19%.
The clover program goes hand in hand with the rye program.
Richard Scott, a senior scientist at AgResearch, says they were able to increase the oil levels in rye grass leaves by about 2%, which studies show results in a 10% reduction in methane emissions.
But like inhibitors and vaccines, the feed program is still several years away from being ready on the farm. Scientists have completed controlled trials in the US and are planning a larger field trial in Australia.
However, New Zealand has strict regulations that ban most GM crops, a regulatory hurdle that scientists will need to overcome if they want to put GM feed on farms. of the country.
In another study, dairy company Fonterra is testing a Kowbucha probiotic concoction, and British company Zelp is continuing to test and improve its wearable straps. Other tests have shown that a red seaweed called Asparagopsis reduces methane when cows eat it.
But farmers aren’t waiting for all of the research to come to fruition. At the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan says they have reduced their methane production by being more efficient.
That includes increasing milk production from each cow, he says, using less processed feed and replacing cows that milk less frequently.
“At the farm level, we have to do our best to help save the planet,” says Bichan.