PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand (AP) — How do you stop a cow from burping?
It may sound like the start of a humorous riddle, but it’s the subject of extensive scientific investigation in New Zealand. And the answer could have profound effects on the health of the planet.
Specifically, the question is how do we stop cows, sheep and other farm animals from releasing so much methane, a gas that doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is at least 25 times more powerful when it comes to global warming.
Because cows cannot easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment it in several 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, there is an environmental cost.
New Zealand scientists are proposing surprising solutions that could drastically reduce these emissions. Among the most promising are selective breeding, genetically modified foods, methane inhibitors and a potential game-changer – a vaccine.
Nothing is off the table, from feeding the 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 burps.
In New Zealand, research has taken on a new urgency. Because agriculture is the heart of the economy, about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared to less than 10% in the United States. New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered by 26 million sheep and 10 million cattle.
As part of an effort to become carbon neutral, the New Zealand government has pledged to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47% by 2050.
Last month, the government announced a plan start taxing farmers for animal burps, a world first that has angered many farmers. All parties hope they can take a break from science.
Much of the research takes place on a campus in Palmerston North, which some have jokingly called Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.
“I don’t believe there is anywhere else that has the scale of ambition that New Zealand has in terms of the range of technologies studied in one place,” said Peter Janssen, principal scientist at AgResearch. , a government-owned company. which employs about 900 people.
At the base of the research, studies indicate that reducing methane need not 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 digestion.
He has been working on vaccine development for 15 years and has been intensively focused on it for five years. He said it has the potential to reduce the amount of methane released by cows by 30% or more.
“I definitely believe it’s going to 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 reduce the production of the methane-producing microbes. One of the great advantages of a vaccine is that it probably only needs to be given once a year, or maybe even once in an animal’s lifetime.
Working similarly, inhibitors are compounds given to animals that directly attenuate methane microbes.
Inhibitors could also reduce methane by at least 30% and possibly as much as 90%, 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.
Inhibitors and 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 deployed on 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 trace differences in the amount of methane they spit. Low emitters were bred and produced low emitting offspring. The scientists also tracked common genetic characteristics of 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 this whole area of animal husbandry,” said Sinead Leahy, senior science adviser at the Gas Research Center. New Zealand agricultural greenhouse. “And in particular, a lot of research has been done on low-emission sheep farming.”
Another target is the food animals eat, which scientists believe has the potential to reduce methane production by 20-30%.
In a greenhouse on campus, scientists are developing genetically modified clover. Visitors should wear medical slippers and scrubs and avoid dropping items to avoid cross-contamination.
Scientists explain that because New Zealand farm animals mostly eat outdoors in fields rather than barns, methane-reducing feed additives like Bovaer, developed by Dutch company DSM, are not also useful.
Instead, they are looking to genetically modify ryegrass and white clover which New Zealand animals primarily eat.
With clover, scientists have found a way to increase tannins, which helps block methane production.
“What this team did is they actually identified, through their research, a master switch that activates the condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, science group leader at AgResearch.
Laboratory analysis indicates that 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, a senior scientist at AgResearch, said he was able to increase oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which studies show should result in lower 10% of methane emissions.
But like the inhibitors and the vaccine, the feeding program is still a few years away from being ready for the farm. Scientists have completed controlled testing in the United States and are planning a larger field trial in Australia.
However, New Zealand has strict rules that ban most genetically modified crops, a regulatory hurdle that scientists will have to overcome if they want to introduce the modified foods to farms in the country.
In other research, dairy company Fonterra is testing its probiotic concoction Kowbucha and UK company Zelp is continuing to test and refine its wearable harnesses. Other trials have indicated that a red algae called Asparagopsis reduces methane when eaten by cows.
But farmers aren’t waiting for all the research to bear fruit. On the Kaiwaiwai Dairies farm near the town of Featherston, farmer Aidan Bichan said he has reduced his methane production by becoming more efficient.
He said that includes increasing milk production from each cow, using less processed food and replacing dairy cows less frequently.
“At the farm level, we have to do our part to help save the planet,” Bichan said.
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