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Earth Science

Can We Reduce Cow Methane Emissions By Breeding Low-Emission Cattle? (popsci.com) 224

An anonymous reader quotes Popular Science: Raising cattle contributes to global warming in a big way. The animals expel large amounts of methane when they burp and fart, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. U.S. beef production, in fact, roughly equals the annual emissions of 24 million cars, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That's a lot of methane... Researchers think there may be a better way. Rather than ask people to give up beef, they are trying to design more climate-friendly cattle.

The goal is to breed animals with digestive systems that can create less methane. One approach is to tinker with the microbes that live in the rumen, the main organ in the animals' digestive tract... Scientists in the United Kingdom last year found that a cow's genes influence the makeup of these microbial communities, which include bacteria and also Archaea, the primary producers of methane. This discovery means cattle farmers potentially could selectively breed animals that end up with a lower ratio of Archaea-to-bacteria, thus leading to less methane... "The selection to reduce methane emissions would be permanent, cumulative and sustainable over generations as with any other trait, such as growth rate, milk yield, etc. used in animal breeding." This, over time, "would have a substantial impact on methane emissions from livestock," Roehe said.

Breeding low-emission cattle would also make it cheaper to raise cattle -- and improve the quality of meat.
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Can We Reduce Cow Methane Emissions By Breeding Low-Emission Cattle?

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  • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @02:38PM (#55255045)

    If you’re not a religious environmentalist, your cows' methane emissions are not a sin.

    • If you’re not a religious environmentalist, your cows' methane emissions are not a sin.

      And if you ARE a religious environmentalist, you're not going to eat designer cows.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @02:39PM (#55255047) Journal

    U.S. beef production, in fact, roughly equals the annual emissions of 24 million cars

    There are about 270 million cars in the US. Better to switch to electric and continue enjoying your ribeye steak.

    • Don't be so ignorant and isolationist, solving this issue will be of huge benefit worldwide.
      Take NZ for instance, half our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture (thanks to 85% of our power coming from renewables), would be fantastic to reduce methane in cow farts.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by PopeRatzo ( 965947 )

        Take NZ for instance

        As an American, I'm not even convinced New Zealand is a real place. Sure, I watched that show with the little people living the Shire and the wizard and all, but it was mostly CGI.

        No, there is no such thing as a "New Zealand". Unlike Nambia, which is totally a real place, but the mainstream media doesn't want you to know that. It's why they lost the election.

        • To be perfectly honest, I'm more than happy for most of the world not to think NZ is a real place, or if they do, to think it's somewhere in Europe.

        • Unlike Nambia, which is totally a real place, but the mainstream media doesn't want you to know that.

          HAH! Now I know you are joking. Nambia is that place in those books where some British kids walked into a cupboard and met a talking lion. What was that lion's name? Aztec?

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        Apart from one tiny problem cows do not produce methane, that is kind of silly. What produces methane, why the micro-organisms living in the cows gut breaking down cell wall membranes. So smarter would be to replace those micro-organisms with new more efficient micro-organisms that would break down cell walls more efficiently, producing more actual cow digestible content from the same amount of feed that do not produce methane but also do not kill the cow. Note the methane does not just come from 'cow farts

    • The goal is to breed animals with digestive systems that can create less methane

      Is this really necessary? My local natural gas company buys cow produced methane and then sells it as natural gas. It doesn't really matter if the methane I burn to heat my house comes from an oil well or from cow dung, and apparently according to the gas companies brochure, the cow dung is cheap enough to be price competitive with mined methane.

      Why don't we just use the cows we already have as both a source of food as well as

    • There are people starving but feeding cattle is much more important. Why? Because red meat is the best health food? It is not. So we are starving people to produce less healthy foods to satisfy our taste buds. Watch the movie "Forks over knives". If one still eats a lot of red meat than their empathy toward the cattle, other people, and themselves should be increased.

    • So you're saying I should sell my car and ride a cow to work?

      Bonus that after a couple years I can get a new model and eat the old one. Not so sure my neighbors would appreciate it when the exhaust starts leaking sludge though...

  • Can We Reduce Cow Methane Emissions By Breeding Low-Emission Cattle?

    The answer is in the question, isn't it? Bold mime. How did this make it to Slashdot?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Mooooooo!

  • Raise more deer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Khyber ( 864651 ) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Sunday September 24, 2017 @02:55PM (#55255113) Homepage Journal

    Tastier, makes better jerky, leaner, can be raised faster/reproduces quicker, requires less space, requires less food, requires less energy.

    Pretty much a full-out win.

    • No way is venison tastier than beef. More flavorful you can have.

      Goats taste just as good as deer, and they don't jump as high, so they're easier to raise. And they can eat practically anything. And hey, they're already the world's most popular meat as a result.

    • Re:Raise more deer (Score:5, Interesting)

      by blindseer ( 891256 ) <blindseer@@@earthlink...net> on Sunday September 24, 2017 @03:46PM (#55255343)

      I was just reading yesterday on how Staten Island has a deer problem so they are culling the deer. Now usually one would think this means trapping or shooting the deer but no, that would make sense. What the New York City government is doing is giving the bucks they catch a vasectomy.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/0... [nytimes.com]

      Not even a castration, which would not only be easier but also avoid the rut behavior that puts them at risk of automobile collisions as they travel around the island. They are giving the bucks a vasectomy.

      Don't deer fart too? What of their methane production? Not only that but the reason they want to get rid of the deer on the island is that they are effectively an invasive species spreading disease, causing property damage, and putting people's lives at risk from automobile collisions.

      The inmates are running the asylum in New York City. Those deer should be hunted for their tasty meat and to remove the risks to life and property they cause. But no one wants to vote to kill Bambi, so they spend millions of taxpayer dollars to catch the deer, give them a vasectomy, and then... let them go. That way the deer can die naturally, by getting hit by a truck.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Castrating them (since you won't get all the male deer) wouldn't actually much reduce the rate of deer breeding precisely because the castrated males won't rut. Thus the few with intact parts would simply mate with more hinds. If they are castrated then it is entirely possible for the dominant buck to be one firing blanks, with pretty much none of the hinds getting pregnant (some hinds are naughty).

    • by hord ( 5016115 )

      Raise more? In Texas we had management tags to shoot all the extra ones tearing up the land that didn't get shot during hunting season. Hundreds of them. Every year. They breed like rabbits on oil field land where hunting is restricted.

  • Cows producing octane.
  • This was the premise of the movie Okja [imdb.com].

  • by sxpert ( 139117 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @03:04PM (#55255179)
    feed them proper grass and neither corn nor soy beans... problem solved
    • Given that about half the arable land in the US is already devoted to livestock and the crops that feed them, and that corn and soy pack a LOT more calories than grass, how much more land are you willing to give up to grow grass to feed livestock? (And what will the damage of that be? Even more forests cut down to grow grass for cows?) I think this war is lost, and people just need to eat less (or no) animal products.

    • by Whibla ( 210729 )

      feed them proper grass and neither corn nor soy beans... problem solved

      Unfortunately that doesn't solve the problem.

      This [nationalgeographic.com], however, might...

  • by RyanFenton ( 230700 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @03:09PM (#55255207)

    Lots of these sub-debates on cleanup miss the underlying point:

    We're digging up carbon/methane to get our fuels currently, and that's the net cause of the overall warming.

    Yes, cows produce CO2/Methane from their gut bacteria. Those same bacteria would still produce those same gasses without cows, just with rotting vegetation. Getting rid of cows wouldn't fix the underlying biological systems, from too much carbon in general floating around, and 'fixing' cows doesn't do much about the whole system that cattle is emblematic of.

    The real (environmental) issue with cattle is that we transport everything they eat, and basically everything about them, with vehicles burning fuel dug up from previously sequestered hydrocarbons.

    At every stage, we're pushing the planet VERY QUICKLY back in atmospheric time to a more carbon-heavy atmosphere, trapping more energy over time, and essentially recreating several kinds of mass extinction scenarios, like this one:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    It's cool that we're finding some ways to staunch the flow of some greehouse effects - but unless we're sequestering the carbon in some way, it's still going to cycle back around and have mostly the same effect over time - and we're going to have to work harder to 'fight' those net effects. In other words, we're fighting the symptoms, not the underlying at-large causes.

    Ryan Fenton

    • Yes, cows produce CO2/Methane from their gut bacteria. Those same bacteria would still produce those same gasses without cows, just with rotting vegetation.

      No, the bacteria produce far more CO2 and far less methane.

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @03:10PM (#55255215) Homepage

    It's not the cow that is the problem, it's the bacteria.

    Cows are big and take a long time to reproduce - 9 months to give birth, then 7 months to become fertile.

    Bacteria are small, easier to fiddle with their genetics, and can reproduce in minutes.

    Doesn't take a genius to figure out that we should be genetically engineering the Archaea DNA, not the cows. Change the Archaea so that it loves the current cow environment but does not produce methane.

    Makes more sense than changing the cow and hoping the Archaea does not evolve to like the new cows.

  • by pubwvj ( 1045960 ) on Sunday September 24, 2017 @03:31PM (#55255297)

    Realize that a great deal of this sort of 'news' is propaganda from the Anti-Meat nuts. The UN retracted it's report that falsely blamed agriculture for global warming gasses be it is filled with inaccuracies. Other anti-meat propaganda has come tumbling down on closer inspection.

    Reality: humans produce more methane than cows, human drilling produces far more methane than cows, human transportation is a far larger culprit than cows, the wild ruminants historically produced more methane than cows and engineering cows isn't going to make a lot of difference but it makes good profits and propaganda.

    If you really care about global warming, local and all that then buy from your local pasture based farmers which increases CO2 sequestering and keeps your money in the local economy.

    • Err - where did you see the UN retract their report? Their report, Livestock's Long Shadow is still totally relevant and hasn't been "retracted": http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/... [fao.org]

      And did you even look at the article? The big chart clearly shows that in the US methane from cows is the second biggest source (25%) after natural gas and petroleum (31%). (And since when is Popular Science 'anti-meat'?)

      It's literally right there in the article, yet you're spouting this nonsense..come on.

    • by pakar ( 813627 )

      Reducing emissions of any kind is a good thing... How to implement it in a good way is a different story..

      Stop feeding cows corn and soy-based feed to start with and that will reduce their emissions a crap-load. (yea, i had to go there :)

      Providing economic incentives for companies that produce goods at lower emission-levels will result in lower emissions and will start a race to produce the most amount of goods with the smallest environmental impact. How to do this on a global market can definitely be tric

    • What does it say about you when you consider people who don't support murder on holocaust scales to be "nuts"? I say the people who would destroy their own habitat and effect suffering on massive scales in order to feed their addiction are the nuts.
  • "Cows emit a LOT of methane, so we need to stop eating them."

    (Rationale that it's not that bad, there are bigger sources of methane, etc, etc..)

    "Cows emit a LOT of methane, so we need to genetically engineer them."

    (Agreement methane from cows is a problem, we can change the cows, which all funnels into something that makes a lot more money, unlike people eating fewer or no cow products.)

  • Isn't it bad enough that half the packaging of stuff I buy is full of "no-gmo" "100% organic" "100% real ingredients" "blahblahblah"? Now I need a "Cut from LEB (Low Emission Breed) Cattle"?

    Sheesh!

  • Construction Costs:
    Nuclear: $14 billion (Vogtle units 3 & 4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    Solar: $2.2 billion (Ivanpah Solar Power Facility) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    Wind: $1.5 million (typical 1 megawatt windmill in USA) https://emp.lbl.gov/sites/all/... [lbl.gov]

    Power produced:
    Nuclear: 2 GW (2 units x 1.2 gigawatts each x 0.85 expected capacity factor)
    Solar: 80 MW (400 MW capacity x 0.2 measured capacity factor)
    Wind: 0.33 MW (1 MW x 0.33 typical measured capacity factor)

    Expected Operational Lifespan

  • skip natural gas go directly to electric cattle!
    • Excellent idea! All we need now are some electric horsemen to herd them to market. Someone call Robert Redford!

  • FTFS: "Breeding low-emission cattle would also make it cheaper to raise cattle -- and improve the quality of meat."

    What the hell does the cost or quality have to do with how much methane they emit?

    • Less methane means they're utilizing more of the energy from the feed. Less feed = cheaper. Improved meat quality is harder to assess, but might amount to paying more attention to those factors while reducing methane.

  • This Australian study: https://researchonline.jcu.edu... [jcu.edu.au] found that adding seaweed to the diet of cattle reduced their methane emissions by up to 99%. That seems a lot simpler and faster than breeding for reduced methane; in any case the special breeds probably wouldn't have 99% reduction. Let's do both.

  • We had an article pointing out there is a right amount of sea weed they can add to reduce the methane discharge to a minimal level.. what about that one?
  • ... by breeding low-expectation, low-testosterone worker units? In my factories, some of the current models have expressed belief in reduced work hours, increased health benefits, citizen rights and (believe it or not) unionization. My sales contract says that the current iteration (LaborUnits Ltd version 27) is -7 on the Puzder scale for organizational involvement and -12 for cognitive independence. Societal distrust is +22 nominal with +-9 modulation via internet perception. Some units have become real
  • Will this be a long term solution? Or will the methane-producing bacteria just adapt to the new cattle?
  • ... but wouldn't it be quicker to just put pilot lights on their butts?
  • Can We Reduce Cow Methane Emissions By Breeding Low-Emission Cattle?

    Do androids dream of electric sheep?
    That was a thought that was rather deep
    But now we want some eco-friendly cattle
    Can we bio-engineer our favorite chattel?
    A high methanogen count will the climate force
    Farting our way to global warming remorse
    But if we can't electrify our grade-A chow
    How now do we get a hybrid cow?

  • by kenh ( 9056 )

    Breeding low-emission cattle would also make it cheaper to raise cattle -- and improve the quality of meat.

    Exactly how does cow flatulence make it more expensive to raise cattle, such that low-emission cows would be "cheaper to raise"?

    Exactly how do low-emission cows beef "improve the quality of meat"?

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