A Dietary Supplement Makes Cow Burps More Climate-Friendly

A compound could help reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the methane content of cow belches.

Autor*in Terri Kafyeke, 05.12.16

A compound could help reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the methane content of cow belches.

When it comes to global warming, the transportation sector is usually the first human activity that comes to mind. But our dietary choices also have a tremendous impact on the climate. About a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock farming, and 35 per cent of these emissions are generated by ruminants such as cows and sheep. When these animals belch, they release methane (CH4) in the atmosphere, which contributes to climate forcing.

Recent scientific developments suggest that adding a compound to livestock feed can reduce the methane content of their burps without impacting their health. In 2014, a team of Canadian scientists published a study on ‘The potential of 3-nitrooxypropanol to lower enteric methane emissions from beef cattle’. The team found that adding 3NOP to cattle feed reduced methane emissions by up to 33 per cent without hindering the normal digestion process.

A more recent study on lactating cows demonstrated that using 3NOP was not detrimental to milk production, in addition to confirming that the compound could decrease methane emissions by around 30 per cent. The substance is currently pending approval by food inspection agencies, so it will take a few years before cow burps contain less methane.

In the meantime, there are very simple ways to reduce our farming-related emissions: consuming less animal products.

“A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

Rob Bailey

While it is great that scientists can reduce the methane content of cow burps without harming them, one can debate whether it makes sense to go to such lengths instead of simply cutting down our meat and dairy consumption. Perhaps if we tried to see meat as a resource intensive product to enjoy in moderation rather than a cheap food to eat three times a day, we would not need to change the chemical composition of cow burps.

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