What ideas could help cut down emissions from cows?
In this blog, there are three proposed ideas to help reduce cows’ emissions globally. Some of which are already being trialled in certain countries and others are simply ideas that may have only recently begun testing. The ideas are genetically modifying cows, replacing a small portion of their diet with seaweed and/or toilet-training them just like humans. If successful, the emissions from cows could drastically decline to the point where they have almost no effect on the planet. While these ideas could certainly help us in combating climate change and global warming, the proposals could also benefit the animals themselves which will be touched on throughout this text.
Do cows really produce much emissions?
To put into perspective the impact cattle have on the planet, statistics suggest that if all cows were placed into one country, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases each year. According to many scientists, cows produce as much greenhouse gas emissions daily as the average car every 24 hours. What makes cows even worse is that the main greenhouse gas they produce is called methane (CH4) which is 84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time frame! In 2021, there are around one billion cows worldwide and while this is already a high number, it could soon escalate if plant-based meat doesn’t work out with the ever-growing human population. All the more reason to try and remove the tremendous amount of emissions cattle produce.
Less flatulent cows:
This idea is quite controversial as it requires modifying the biology of cows to fart and burp less. Cows fart and burp (for lack of better words) a lot and this is because there are certain gut microbes within a cow’s digestive system to help them digest food but unfortunately lead to a by-product of methane. The idea behind genetically modifying cows is to edit/alter the cow’s microbes within the digestive system to help them significantly cut down on the amount of methane as a by-product later on. Scientists believe that the genetic modification of cows could cut their emissions down by around 50% or slightly more. There currently aren’t any less flatulent cows on the market for people to purchase but there is a certain cow being tested in Canada named number ‘1995’. 1995 has been slightly genetically modified and has frequent tests daily to measure the amount of food she eats as well as having her breath checked for methane and carbon dioxide. This cow is a part of the Canadian project called the ‘Genome Canada project’. Currently, 1995 is the one and only cow being tested but the plan for this project is to expand to around 10,000 cows in the future to ensure the technology actually works. The genetic modification of cows could also have many other benefits putting aside the environmental factor. If genetically modifying organisms becomes easier, we could also help improve the overall health of cows by editing them to fight off diseases and live longer.
However, is genetically modifying cows an ethical approach to this environmental problem?
The topic of genetic engineering/genetically modified organisms is a highly controversial subject and especially when it comes to editing an organism that may one day be on our plate as food. Genetic engineering is one that has its positives and negatives.
Forms of genetic engineering have been happening for thousands of years meaning we already have experience in this subject and today there are many animal cruelty legislation that people, companies, businesses, etc must follow so the chance of direct and instant animal harm from humans is a consideration.
There have been many experiments around gene editing that have gone wrong and have left certain organisms with dangerous conditions they didn’t once have until we experimented with them.
Toilet trained cows:
While this may seem strange, this is a legitimate idea that could reduce emissions from cows by considerably more than the first idea. Recently in Germany, a herd of calves and cows were taught to go to the toilet in a barn, this way the waste could be collected and then treated. But why?
Cows’ waste can often contaminate soil and waterways when produced and lead to greenhouse gas emissions. Natural organisms like plants and grass often can’t handle the disposal of cow’s urine which will regularly lead to that patch of grass dying out and/or plants in the surrounding area dying as well. When urine drains into the soil, it mixes with the soil and creates nitrous oxide (N2O), another very dangerous greenhouse gas that is roughly 300 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide (CO2)! This German project was called ‘MooLoo’. They tried teaching 16 calves/cows and after a few weeks, 11 of the 16 had been successfully toilet trained. The statistics suggested that the calves/cows were comparable to our young children and well past our very young children in terms of toilet training success rates. When the calves/cows did the correct thing, they would be rewarded with a sweet drink or mashed barley and if they did the wrong thing, they would be surprised by a quick little spray of water to act as a soft punishment. According to an animal psychologist called Jan Langbein, if 80% of cow waste was collected, the emissions could be reduced by over 50%. By teaching cows to dispose of their waste in indoor facilities like barns, it would also help increase each cow’s overall hygiene outside when in the grass fields resulting in greater welfare.
Feeding cows seaweed:
Feeding a small portion of specific seaweed to cows daily could be one of the simplest ideas to help reduce emissions from cows as well as save farmers a significant amount of money along the way. Research conducted not long ago, tested 21 Angus Hereford beef steers to see if the emissions produced from each cow would decline if a specific red seaweed (Asparagopsis) was introduced into each of their diets every day for 21 weeks. The cows were fed around 50 to 80 grams of Asparagopsis as well as their traditional meals like hay, corns and grains. The leaders of this project continuously monitored each individual cow’s hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane levels. The scientists found that after 21 weeks of adding Asparagopsis to the cows’ daily diets, their emission reduction was around 48% to 68%. However, the increase in Asparagopsis consumption could lower the total emissions even more by around 80% to 90%.
How does Asparagopsis reduce cow emissions?
When the Asparagopsis enters the cow’s digestive system, a molecule found within the seaweed called bromoform can capture and obstruct a key enzyme within the microbes to stop the by-product of methane.
According to CRISCO, Meat and Livestock Australia and James Cook University, if as little as 10% of all livestock producers in the world increased their cows’ diets by simply 1% of Asparagopsis daily, it would be the equivalent of taking 100 million cars off the road annually.
While feeding cows seaweed could be a saving grace for the environment, there were many other benefits that were discovered in this study including:
• Due to the effectiveness of the Asparagopsis, the cows were able to grow/develop at an even quicker rate.
• The seaweed produced additional nutrients benefiting the cow’s gut microbes.
• The addition of Asparagopsis to the cow’s diet would have no effect on the quality of potential meat for human consumption.
• If a farmer had around 1,000 cows and was adding Asparagopsis to their daily diet, they could save between $54,000 to $117,000 AUD ($40,000 to $87,000 USD) annually on feed due to the amount of protein the Asparagopsis contains meaning the cows wouldn’t have to consume as much.
With the tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced each year, it’s becoming more and more clear that action must be taken to reduce the huge environmental impacts from cattle worldwide. All of the ideas suggested above could drastically slash the emissions produced annually. With the technology already in place and the science to prove they work, it’s now about choosing which idea/s should be implemented and getting started now before it’s simply too late as the climate catastrophe worsens.