Fighting Climate Change, Burp By Burp

Around the world, scientists attempt novel ways to reduce methane emissions from cows.

In grassy fields and research labs around the world, scientists are making a herculean effort to help fight climate change: one cow burp at a time.

Driven by pressure to clean up the beef and dairy business and help save farmers money, a global network of researchers is trying everything they can think of — genetic breeding programs, feed additives and even vaccines — to reduce the amount of methane produced by cattle.

The science is relatively simple. Ruminants — including cows, sheep and goats — have a specialized organ called the rumen, where hay, grain and grass is fermented into cud, rechewed, then re-digested. One byproduct is the greenhouse gas methane, which is burped, or eructed, by the cow into the atmosphere.

Around 10 percent of total methane output in the U.S. is caused by the dairy industry, with livestock causing approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Dr. Alexander Hristov was the lead researcher on a study that sent shockwaves through greenhouse gas researchers late last year. It built on previous work by a Canadian team, and found that adding a chemical compound called 3-nitrooxypropanol to cattle feed reduced methane emissions by a whopping 30 percent. Called 3NOP (pronounced “nope”), the compound has yet to be approved by any food inspection agencies — this will take years — but he says it’s a solid step in the right direction.

“Farmers want to be good stewards and show the public they care about the environment. So this could be a real stimulus for them,” says Hristov. Government subsidies aren’t out of the question, nor is the potential of developing North American carbon markets, including those in California, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, that could encourage farmers to purchase the feed once approved.

Another hopeful prospect is breeding for cattle that eat the same amount of food but burp less methane.

In this area of research, Alberta scientist and professor John Basarab and his team are leading the pack. They use a field-based feeder — “a fume hood on wheels,” says Basarab, to monitor bovine emissions. With the new technology, cattle are lured into the feeder with treats, identified by an ear tag and sampled for short intervals over a long period of time. Animals that produce less methane on the same amount of feed are then bred, hopefully giving those same traits in future generations.

Meanwhile, other research teams are hard at work around the world. In India, they’re studying whether dwarf cattle produce less emissions proportionate to their size (spoiler: they do.) And in New Zealand, scientists are working on a vaccine that targets certain gas-producing bacteria. The beauty, says Basarab, is that many of the techniques could work in tandem, with a cumulative positive impact. “They’re synergistic. They will work together,” he says.

And that’s certainly more than a load of hot air.