Beef may be delicious, but at what cost? Today, livestock creates 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of this percentage stemming from cud-chomping cattle. Cows are continuously belching dangerous gas into our changing environment; however, scientists have a new and hopeful idea: genetic modification.
How do cows create greenhouse gases?
Cows create methane through digestion. When food breaks down in their stomachs, the process creates methane which the cows then release from their bodies through burps and farts. Although gassy cows are hilarious, they’re also dangerous: methane is even more potent than carbon dioxide (for one, it’s about 30 times better at trapping heat than CO2). Farts aren’t as serious of a threat to the world as burning fossil fuels, but the cattle methane contribution is a serious one.
What are researchers going to do about it?
Recently, cow specialists have identified a key group of stomach microbes that cause a lot of cow flatulence. A team of researchers in Europe studied over one thousand cows over the course of four years and discovered that over half of all cows studied had the same types of microbes in their stomachs. John Wallace, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, has made a distinct connection between these gut microbes and cow genetics. This connection has prompted a ground-breaking idea: genetically modifying cows to remove the gas-causing microbes and thus creating an entirely new race of limited-methane cattle. If this idea really works, research suggests that the scientifically engineered cattle could potentially cut cattle greenhouse gas emissions by 50% with few to no negative effects on cows’ milk production or beef deliciousness. But scientists aren’t jumping into the lab to recreate the cow just yet.
For years, scientists and farmers have been attempting to stem the tide of methane streaming from livestock. For example, they’ve tried adding seaweed to the cows’ diet to combat the number of methane cows naturally produce. While cows are known for being surprisingly picky eaters, a study created by researchers at the University of California, Davis has shown that the introduction of a specific type of seaweed has reduced methane output by more than 50%. The problem with this particular solution may not be the effectiveness, but the availability. Asparagopsis, the magic methane-limiting seaweed, doesn’t grow prolifically all around the world, so including this plant in the diets of cattle and ruminant livestock around the world would require much more than making it look appetizing to the bovine diners.
What’s the holdup on genetically modified cattle?
While the new genetically modified cow idea is big and promising, it won’t change the current climate change crisis as quickly as the world needs. It would be decades before there were enough genetically modified cows to effectively stem the tide of rising greenhouse gases. However, using the main idea—that there is a genetic component to cattle methane production—researchers are following a new lead. Instead of creating entirely new animals with scientifically crafted genetics, they are attempting to identify the problem genes and try to get rid of them individually. It might be possible to create an injectible probiotic to change the stomach microbe setup in young cows, streamlining the solution and giving the world less gassy cows much more quickly than genetic modification would.
Whatever version of quiet cows ends up sweeping the market, it’s promising to farmers, feedlot neighbors, and the world that there are so many hopeful options. Cleaner livestock might not change the taste of the beef, but it will certainly change the fate of our world.