New Zealand targets cow burps to help reduce global warming

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

It might seem like the start of a humorous conundrum, but it’s the subject of massive scientific investigation 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 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 when it comes to global warming. .

Because cows can’t easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment it in multiple compartments of the stomach, or rumen, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Whenever someone eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, it has an environmental cost.

Scientists from New Zealand are coming up with some surprising solutions that could significantly impact those emissions. Among the most promising are selective breeding, genetically modified feed, methane inhibitors and a potential game changer: a vaccine.

Nothing is out of the question, from feeding animals more algae to giving them a kombucha-style probiotic called “Kowbucha”. A British company has even developed a wearable harness for cows that oxidizes methane as it is erupted.

In New Zealand, research has taken on a new urgency. Because agriculture is critical to the economy, about half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared to less than 10 percent in the United States. New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered by 26 million sheep and 10 million cattle.

As part of the drive to become carbon neutral, the New Zealand government has promised to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47% by 2050.

The government announced a plan last month start taxing farmers for animal burps, a first move in the world that has angered many farmers. All parties hope they can take a break from science.

Much of the research is taking place on a Palmerston North campus, which some have jokingly referred to as Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.

“I don’t think there is another place that has the breadth of ambition that New Zealand has in terms of the range of technologies being studied anywhere,” said Peter Janssen, a lead scientist at AgResearch, a company owned of the government which employs about 900 people.

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

He has been working on vaccine development for the past 15 years and has been intensely focused on it for the past five years. He said it has the potential to reduce the amount of methane erupted by cows by 30% or more.

“I certainly believe it will work, because that’s the motivation to do it,” he said.

A vaccine would stimulate an animal’s immune system to produce antibodies, which would then dampen the production of methane-producing microbes. A big advantage of a vaccine is that it should probably only be given once a year, or perhaps even once in an animal’s life.

Working in a similar way, inhibitors are compounds administered to animals that directly dampen methane microbes.

The inhibitors could also reduce methane by at least 30 percent and possibly up to 90 percent, according to Janssen. The challenge is that the compounds must be safe for animal consumption and not pass through meat or milk to humans. Inhibitors must also be administered regularly.

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

But other technologies such as selective farming, which could reduce methane production by 15%, will be implemented in sheep farms as early as next year, Janssen said. A similar program for cows may not be too far behind.

Scientists have been testing sheep in chambers for years to track differences in the amount of methane they erupt. The low emitters were bred and produced low emitter offspring. Scientists also monitored the genetic characteristics common to low-emission animals that make them easily identifiable.

“I think one of the areas where New Zealand scientists, in particular, have made great strides is in this whole area of ​​animal husbandry,” said Sinead Leahy, the lead scientific advisor at the Greenhouse Gas Research Center. New Zeland. “And in particular, a lot of research has been done on low-emission sheep farming.”

Another target is the feed that animals eat, which scientists say has the potential to reduce methane production by 20% to 30%.

In a campus greenhouse, scientists are developing genetically modified clover. Visitors must wear medical boots and gowns and avoid placing objects to prevent any cross-contamination.

Scientists explain that because New Zealand farm animals eat outdoors in fields most of the time rather than in barns, methane-reducing feed additives such as Bovaer, developed by Dutch company DSM, are not as useful. .

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

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

“What this team did is that they actually identified, through their research, a master switch that turns on the condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, head of AgResearch’s science group.

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

The clover program goes hand in hand with a ryegrass program.

Richard Scott, a senior scientist at AgResearch, said they were able to increase oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2 percent, which studies say should translate into a 10 percent drop in methane emissions.

But like the inhibitors and the vaccine, the feed program is still a few years away from being ready for breeding. Scientists have completed controlled testing in the United States and are planning a larger field trial in Australia.

However, New Zealand has strict rules banning most genetically modified crops, a regulatory barrier that scientists will have to overcome if they are to introduce modified feed on the nation’s farms.

In other research, dairy company Fonterra is experimenting with its Kowbucha probiotic blend, and UK firm Zelp is continuing to try and refine its wearable harnesses. Other evidence has indicated that a red alga called Asparagopsis reduces methane when eaten by cows.

But farmers aren’t waiting for all the research to come to fruition. At the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan said they are reducing their methane production by becoming more efficient.

He said this includes increasing each cow’s milk production, using less processed feed, and replacing dairy cows less frequently.

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

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