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New Zealand targets cow burps to reduce global warming – Chicago Tribune

How to stop a cow from burping?

This may sound like the beginning of a humorous puzzle, but it is the subject of a huge scientific study in New Zealand. And the answer could have a profound effect on the health of the planet.

More specifically, the question is how to stop cows, sheep and other farm animals from emitting so much methane, a gas that doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but is at least 25 times more potent when it comes to global warming. .

Because cows cannot easily digest the grass they eat, they first ferment it in several parts 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 comes at an environmental price.

Scientists in New Zealand have come up with some surprising solutions that could have a big impact on these emissions. Among the most promising are selective breeding, genetically modified feed, methane inhibitors and a potential vaccine.

From feeding the animals more seaweed to giving them probiotics in the style of a tea mushroom called “Kaubucha”. One British company has even developed a harness for cows that oxidizes methane when they burp.

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

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

Last month, the government announced plans to start taxing farmers for burping their animals, a world-first move that has angered many farmers. All parties hope they can take a break from science.

Much of the research is done at the university’s Palmerston North campus, which some jokingly call Gambut Valley, a nod to Silicon Valley.

“I don’t believe there is any other place that has the breadth of ambition as New Zealand in terms of the range of technologies being researched in one place,” said Peter Jansen, chief scientist at AgResearch, a government company . where about 900 people work.

The research is based on research showing that reducing methane does not necessarily harm animals or affect the quality of milk or meat. Jansen said microbes that live in animals and produce methane are more likely to be pathogenic than integral to digestion.

He has been working on vaccine development for the past 15 years and has been focusing intensely on it for the past five years. He said it could reduce the amount of methane spewed up by cows by 30% or more.

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

The vaccine will stimulate the animal’s immune system to produce antibodies, which will then weaken the production of methane-producing microbes. One big plus of the vaccine is that it will likely only need to be administered once a year, or perhaps even once in the animal’s lifetime.

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

According to Jansen, inhibitors can also reduce methane by at least 30% and possibly as much as 90%. The challenge is that the compounds must be safe for animal consumption and not pass through meat or milk into the human body. Inhibitors must also be administered regularly.

Both inhibitors and vaccines will be ready for the market in a few years, Jansen said.

But other technologies, such as selective breeding, which can reduce methane production by 15%, will be implemented on sheep farms as early as next year, Jansen said. A similar program for cows may not be far behind.

Scientists have been testing sheep in chambers for years to find differences in the amount of methane they belch. Low-emission emitters were bred and produced low-emission offspring. Scientists are also tracking genetic characteristics shared by low-emission animals that make them easily identifiable.

“I think one of the areas where New Zealand scientists have made a lot of progress is in animal breeding,” said Sinead Leahy, chief scientific adviser at the New Zealand Center for Greenhouse Gas Research in Agriculture. “In particular, there has been a lot of research into low-emission sheep breeding.”

Another target is feed eaten by animals, which scientists believe can reduce methane production by 20-30%.

In one greenhouse on campus, scientists are developing genetically modified clover. Visitors should wear booties and medical scrubs and avoid placing objects to prevent cross-contamination.

Scientists explain that because New Zealand’s farm animals eat most of their food in fields rather than barns, methane-reducing feed additives such as Bovaer, developed by Dutch company DSM, are not as beneficial.

Instead, they seek to genetically modify ryegrass and white clover, which New Zealand’s livestock predominantly eat.

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

“What this team has done is, in their research, they’ve actually identified a master switch that turns on the condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, AgResearch’s science team leader.

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

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

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Richard Scott, senior scientist at AgResearch, said they were able to increase oil levels in ryegrass leaves by about 2%, which research suggests should lead to a 10% reduction in methane emissions.

But like the inhibitors and the vaccine, the feed program is still years away from farm readiness. Scientists have completed controlled trials in the US and are planning larger field trials in Australia.

However, New Zealand has strict rules banning the cultivation of most genetically modified crops, a regulatory hurdle scientists will need to overcome if they want to introduce modified feed on the country’s farms.

In other studies, dairy company Fonterra is testing its probiotic kombucha mix, and UK company Zelp is continuing to test and improve its wearable harnesses. Other tests have shown that a red seaweed called Asparagopsis reduces methane when cows eat it.

But farmers are not waiting for all the research to bear fruit. Farmer Aidan Beechan at Kaiwaiwai Dairies near Fetherston said they are reducing methane production through increased efficiency.

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

“At the farm level, we have to do everything we can to save the planet,” Beechan said.


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