Cow burps drive world warming. Scientists suppose feeding them seaweed might assist

On a current winter afternoon, a lengthy line of brown Jersey cows lined up for feeding time, jostling for place.

At the tip of the railing, Blueberry snorted in anticipation. Today, her meal on the University of New Hampshire’s natural dairy farm was a typical combination of hay and grain.

But quickly, she and her fellow dairy cows would have one other ingredient added to the combination: seaweed.

This herd is a part of a examine trying into several types of seaweeds’ capability to cut back methane — a strong greenhouse gasoline that cows launch in a gradual stream of burps.

“Cattle is the second largest source of methane in the United States,” mentioned Andre Brito, affiliate professor of dairy cattle diet and administration at UNH. “The industry as a whole is very interested in results to mitigate methane.”

A current report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) discovered methane ranges within the environment at the moment are larger than at any level previously 800,000 years.

Methane is a big driver of worldwide local weather change. Although it breaks down quicker than carbon dioxide, it’s about 25 occasions simpler at trapping warmth.

And bovine burps are the culprits; 95% of the methane launched by cows comes from belching, a byproduct of their digestive system. Gas from cows and different livestock are a vital driver of methane emissions within the United States, second solely to the oil and gasoline trade.

Inquisitive cows at Burley-Demeritt Organic Dairy Research Farm. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Inquisitive cows at Burley-Demeritt Organic Dairy Research Farm. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Brito is a part of a group of New England scientists trying into whether or not feeding seaweed to the nation’s roughly 90 million cattle might assist minimize their methane emissions.

Chewing over the issue

Here’s the way it works. Cows are “ruminants,” mammals that may digest issues that people cannot, like grass. While folks “ruminate” by “chewing on” advanced or disagreeable ideas, ruminants actually ruminate, regurgitating their meals and chewing it additional.

There’s a tradeoff to that course of. A cow’s four-chambered abdomen is “a habitat for billions and billions of microorganisms that basically digest the fiber for the animal,” Brito mentioned. Some of these microbes then launch methane as a byproduct, and the upstairs-downstairs journey of the meals means the gasoline is belched out alongside the way in which.

Certain kinds of seaweed have particular compounds that disrupt these microbes’ capability to make methane. So if you happen to put a few of that seaweed within the cows’ feed, they burp much less methane.

But there is a hitch. To date, the seaweed identified to cut back methane most importantly — Asparagopsis taxiformis — grows in Australia.

Trying to develop it off the coast of the U.S. can be invasive. And rising it in land-based tanks would have a big carbon footprint.

Nichole Price, a senior analysis scientist on the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, is working with Brito to seek out an alternate seaweed.

Nichole Price is a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and leads research on cattle methane solutions. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Nichole Price is a senior analysis scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and leads analysis on cattle methane options. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“The question is, are there seaweed species that are native to different regions around the world, and specifically for us to the Northeast … that can be produced at a scale necessary to feed to the thousands head of cattle that we generate,” she mentioned.

Price and her group have recognized a few dozen native types of seaweed — and dozens extra single-celled microalgae — that would have related methane-inhibiting properties.

They’re now testing them in a lab full of faux cow stomachs, which Price calls their “bottle herd.”

The "bottle herd" in an incubator at Bigelow Laboratory. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The “bottle herd” in an incubator at Bigelow Laboratory. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The bottle herd is a set of glass vials sitting in an incubator. Each is crammed with a brownish-yellow liquid: precise fluid from a cow’s abdomen.

The scientists hold the bottles warmed to about 40 levels Celsius, after which “feed” them little bits of seaweed.

Price and her analysis technicians let the faux abdomen eat the seaweed, then measure the methane concentrations within the gasoline it emits.

Over time, the researchers hope to establish which seaweeds are handiest in disrupting the methane course of within the cow’s abdomen.

Research technician Gabriella Lacono demonstrates how to remove a gas sample from a test bottle. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Research technician Gabriella Lacono demonstrates the right way to take away a gasoline pattern from a check bottle. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A garden-based objection

But some argue there is a less complicated solution to scale back methane emissions from the meat and dairy industries: cease consuming beef and dairy.

“There would be an immediate benefit to simply reducing our consumption of meat, dairy and animal products,” mentioned Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society.

Cows are usually not solely a significant supply of methane, she mentioned. Beef manufacturing can also be the high driver of deforestation of the world’s tropical rainforests, and a main client of recent water.

She sees the seaweed examine as a little bit of a hack, making an attempt to bypass a significant systemic challenge.

“Experimenting with feeding seaweeds to cows treats the animals as if they are machines, where you alter the fuel to alter the emissions,” she mentioned.

Thinking of animals and nature as a useful resource to be manipulated acquired us into this drawback, Kimber mentioned. The identical type of pondering gained’t get us out.

The University of New Hampshire's Burley-Demeritt Organic Dairy Research Farm in Lee, NH. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The University of New Hampshire’s Burley-Demeritt Organic Dairy Research Farm in Lee, NH. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A mossy contender

But Brito thinks his herd of Jersey cows on the University of New Hampshire is perhaps a part of the reply.

Brito is testing a seaweed candidate recognized within the bottle herd at Bigelow Labs — a purple seaweed from the Gulf of Maine referred to as “Irish Moss.” The cows are getting small amounts added to their regular feed.

Early results show methane reductions of about 15% to 20%, he said.

The results are preliminary, and the researchers will also test other types of seaweed. But Brito said he’s optimistic.

“If you might have a constant discount of methane between 20 and 30%, I feel they need to be doing an excellent step in direction of a extra sustainable animal agriculture or dairy cattle agriculture,” he mentioned.

Glass tubes containing different varieties of seaweed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Glass tubes containing different varieties of seaweed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A 20% to 30% reduction in methane is less effective than the Australian seaweed Asparagopsis, which has shown reductions of 80% in studies.

But the team calculates that if a seaweed reduced methane by 30%, could be sustainably mass produced, and fed to every cow in America, methane emissions could shrink by nearly two million metric tons. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, that’s like taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.

That’s removed from a positive guess. What is for sure: local weather scientists say we have to deeply scale back methane emissions if we’re to keep away from the worst results of local weather change.

Seaweed-eating cows could be a part of the answer — however not all of it.

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