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The Milk House: Squelching the belching

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 October 2019

One of the consequences of living in a city is inevitably picking up a few friends who are vegetarians. They see me order a burger and ask how I can eat beef, knowing that cattle contribute to greenhouse gases.

I tell them: “Listen, that’s why I’m trying to eat all the cows I can. What have you been doing to help out?”

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In truth, I stole that line from an old comedian, who probably ripped it off someone himself. Still, as we exponentially experience the consequences of global warming, agriculture has an image concern that it needs to address. The methane produced by cattle rumination does contribute to greenhouse gases to a specific extent, and methane has 36 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.

My argument has always been that proper and conscious agricultural practices have a net positive benefit for the environment, often protecting land from urbanization and preserving certain wildlife habitats. (And, with a government that deregulates emission standards for big businesses, should we be picking on the farmer first? But I digress.) Regardless, consumer concerns regarding the production of meat are not going to lessen in the coming decades, meaning that the industry is going to have to show an effort in attending to livestock burps.

The most likely solution, and thus far most promising, is to alter the animal’s diet. British scientists have found that adding curry or coriander to lab microbes imitating a ruminant’s stomach killed much of the methane-producing bacteria, while leaving the “good” bacteria unharmed. However, while the British love their curry chips, unfortunately their sheep do not.

The project hit a roadblock when they found out that livestock didn’t want to eat such spicy feed. Australian researchers, however, discovered that a certain type of seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, reduces methane production by up to 70% if fed at a rate of 2% in their diet. And with a little molasses, it becomes highly palatable. While it will take a lot of seaweed to enhance all the livestock feed in the world, it has been the most encouraging start to making farm animals more eco-friendly.

Other efforts to reduce pollution from cattle in particular have been a little more…creative. Several different groups have looked to potty-training cows as a way of controlling emissions. New Zealand researchers conditioned eight calves to urinate and defecate in a special feeding stall with a manure grate, rewarding them with extra feed for their good behaviour. The idea behind their work was to be able to trap more of the nitrogen emissions, allowing the farm to potentially use it for energy rather than having it released into the atmosphere.

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The Dutch, however, took this concept up a notch, creating a “cow toilet.” When the cow enters the feeding stall, a lipped bucket raises up behind her and rubs the median suspensory ligament, stimulating urination. Collecting the urine prevents the ammonia from entering the environment, and the cattle eventually become trained to the point where they don’t need the stimulation to relieve themselves into the toilet. Are they practical? Probably not. Are they for sale? Yes, as of next year.

The importance of addressing the image of meat production becomes more imperative as consumer alternatives that once seemed to exist solely in science fiction are now taking root. In 2013, the first lab-grown hamburger was produced. Since then, there’s been a rush of biotech companies growing “clean meat” using stem cells of live animals. A recent study suggests that more than two-thirds of people would be willing to try a lab burger, which is purported to taste the same as those produced by conventional means.

While it is presently still not an economically feasible threat to beef farming, the price of lab meat has reduced drastically the last few years. The first burger cost $325,000, but currently lab meat goes for between $800 and $5,280 per kilogram. Although a person in a white lab coat is not the face of agriculture most shoppers are comfortable with, all indications suggests that it will gain more public acceptability as climate concerns increase.

Climate change has forced industries across all sectors to adjust the way they do business, from wine producers growing different grapes to railroad companies putting down ties made out of bamboo. Agriculture is no exception. As more concerns regarding livestock emissions find mainstream press, the farming community needs to provide positive stories of their own to show how it has been meeting the challenges ahead. Denying the existence of global warming is unproductive, scientifically unsupportable and only damages the perception of agriculture. Instead, it is important to show an awareness of the causes and consequences of greenhouse gases and proof that work is being done to reduce them.

And seaweed has lots of protein in it anyway.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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