Trying to stop cattle burps heating up the planet

GATTON, Australia – To hear Athol Klieve
tell it, a key to reducing Australia’s enormous carbon emissions is to make a
cow more like this country’s iconic animal – the kangaroo.

Both animals are herbivores, and both eat
grass that is fermented before entering their main stomachs. But while cattle
belch enormous amounts of methane to digest the food, kangaroos release
virtually none – they burp only harmless acids that can be turned into vinegar.

Sure, Klieve, an expert on bovine stomachs,
has fiddled around with the ruminants’ diet to make them less gassy. But on a
tour of the new $28 million Center for Advanced Animal Science here, Klieve
grew animated when he talked of leading a team of microbiologists and genetic researchers
to make cattle guts behave like kangaroos’.

“Feed additives can lead to incremental
decreases in methane,” Klieve said, standing inside a nearly complete high-tech
chamber where cattle will be brought in to have their methane burps measured
precisely. “But we’re trying to do other things that might give us a quantum
leap, and that’s why we’re looking at kangaroos.”

Australia contributes more greenhouse gases
per capita than just about any other country, with its coal-fired power plants
leading the way. But more than 10 percent of those gases come from what
bureaucrats call livestock emissions – animals’ burping.
At any given point, after munching and regurgitating grass, tens of millions of
Australian cattle, as well as sheep, are belching methane gases nonstop into
the air. With methane considered 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide in
warming the atmosphere, the burping has given ammunition to environmentalists,
vegetarians and other critics of beef while initially putting the large meat industry
on the defensive.

Now the industry is fighting back. Along
with the government, it is financing a $24 million campaign to reduce burping.
Researchers are looking at measures like adjusting diet, managing manure, re
calibrating stomach organisms and selectively breeding animals that burp less.
So far, the beef industries, led by Meat and Livestock Australia, and farmers
have fought successfully against attempts to tax livestock emissions as part of
a broader carbon pricing system. But in its push to curb Australia’s greenhouse
gases, the government has pledged to put in place an emissions-trading system
by 2013. In a country where growing environmental awareness could also hurt
beef sales, Meat and Livestock is inviting leading environmentalists to
seminars titled “Can Red Meat Be Green?”

The question has cast a spotlight on a
group of scientists more used to leading quiet lives of research, often peering
through fistulas positioned on the sides of cows to give direct access to their
guts. The scientists, rumen microbiologists – “We’re quite a few; you’d be
amazed,” Klieve said – study the stomachs of ruminants like cows, sheep and
deer.

Ruminants release methane because of the
peculiar way they digest their food. Inside a cow’s foregut, which can contain
more than 200 pounds of grass at any given time, fermentation of the food leads
to the release of hydrogen, a byproduct that would slow down the fermentation.
Microbes known as methanogens help the ruminants get rid of the excess hydrogen
by producing methane gases that the animals release into the atmosphere.

In other animals known as hindgut
fermenters, including humans – in which food is fermented after going through
their stomachs – methane is sometimes released through flatulence, a fact that,
Klieve said, has led to misunderstanding about his work
“We’ve had to put up with that all the time,” Klieve said. “It comes from the
front end! In the cow, it comes from the front end. But if you’re a hindgut
fermenter, it goes the other way.”

Leading a visitor through the campus here,
which is part of the University of Queensland and is about 60 miles west of
Brisbane, the state capital, Klieve explained his interest in kangaroos.

Like cattle, kangaroos are also foregut
fermenters. But instead of relying on methanogens to get rid of the unwanted
hydrogen, kangaroos use different microbes that reduce hydrogen by producing
not methane, but harmless acetic acids, the basis of vinegar. Could the microbes
in the kangaroos be transplanted into cows? Could the right environment be
created in cow stomachs so that the good microbes would out compete the
methanogens?

“If we can answer those questions, we’re
moving toward being able to get it so that these animals are not producing
methane,” Klieve said.

Not everyone supports the research. Some
conservationists question trying to make a cow act like another animal.
“This sounds surprising to me, that should be the primary focus when there is
already an animal that does this,” said George Wilson, the leader of Australian
Wildlife Services, a wildlife management company.

Instead, Wilson has been urging Australians
to eat kangaroos. He has proposed managing pasture lands to increase the harvest
of kangaroo meat as an alternative to beef. His proposal was cited favourably
in a major government report in 2008 on climate change, which pointed out that
kangaroos had been the main source of meat for Australia’s Aboriginal people
for 60,000 years. Currently a niche product, kangaroo meat “could again become
important,” the report said.
Beverley Henry, who is in charge of climate change issues at Meat and Livestock
Australia, said kangaroos, which are culled from the wild and cannot be managed
like livestock, could never become a main source of meat.

“It’s going to be very difficult to meet
the current production needs, particularly for the current global population,
with kangaroo,” Henry said. “You need something like 10 kangaroos to produce
the same amount of meat as one steer. You can’t herd them or fence them in.”

Undaunted, a few kangaroo meat
entrepreneurs are pressing ahead, seeing methane emissions as a business
opportunity.
Sharyn Garrett, whose family runs a kangaroo harvesting business in central
Queensland, led efforts to form a cooperative to better promote the meat.
Garrett recently won the Queensland Rural Woman of the Year award from a rural
women’s network for her work with the cooperative and for a business proposal
to raise the appeal of kangaroo meat.

“We’d look to develop
a strategy around how we can promote the kangaroo meat as an alternative, or as
a greener, more environmentally aware product,” Garrett said.

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