We can thank the cows of the world, along with other ruminant livestock, for contributing about 28 percent of global methane emissions related to human activity by dint of their enthusiastic flatulence. Methane capture is one way to get a handle on the situation, but a group of scientists in Australia has chosen to confront the problem at the source. They’ve identified a bacteria in wallabies that could help cows and other large ruminants produce less methane gas while digesting their food — sort of like Beano, but for bovines.
When it Comes to Methane, Belching Matters, Too
Before we get any farther into this subject, we should clarify just one point. Yes, the fart jokes are tempting, but belching is also a significant source of methane emissions from livestock. It’s just not as funny as farting. The basic problem is that whether it comes from one end of the cow or the other, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and livestock contributes a lot of it to the atmosphere.
Wallabies and Methane Gas
The scientists are from Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. According to writer Belinda Tasker, they were inspired by studies of wallabies. These little kangaroo-type creatures which have pretty much the same diet as cattle but produce only about one-fifth as much methane. Upon further investigation, the scientists discovered that wallaby stomachs are home to a bacterium that enables them to process nutrients more efficiently, without venting as much of the undesirable side effect. Cattle possess similar bacteria, only in smaller quantities. The next step would be to figure out how to increase the population of potential gas-fighting bacteria in cattle.
The Fart-Free Cow of the Future
Aside from exploring the bacteria angle, researchers are looking into the impact of diet on methane emissions from ruminants. Fish oil can help reduce methane emissions from cows, for example. Algae may be another methane-fighting dietary supplement, and a few years ago a team of researchers in Canada came up with a set of calculations for a delicately balanced diet that could reduce methane emissions by about 25 percent. Even a simple change like adding chopped hay and straw to the diet seems to do the trick.
Image: Wallaby by wwarby on flickr.com.