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What’s the beef?

Environment > What’s the beef?

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Cows are getting a bad rep...

03 August 2021, 5:23 PM

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Cows are being branded as the new ‘coal’ for causing harm to the planet, but they’re not all bad. Scientists have found a better use than making them into burgers, and it’s a good moove (sorry - we just couldn’t help ourselves!).

Farming currently makes up a third of all global emissions and cows are getting the blame. Beef production is the highest-emitting part of animal farming, which alone is responsible for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, but could tinkering with the microbes in their guts help to save the planet from climate change? That would be udderly fantastic (sorry!).

A new study suggests that bacteria found in one of the compartments of a cow’s stomach can break down plastic, and researchers have been working on harnessing the ability of tiny microscopic bugs to break down the stubborn material.

In another experiment, cows have been given a vaccine against certain gut microbes that are responsible for producing methane as the animals digest their food. And methane is nasty stuff – it’s one of the worst of the greenhouse gases, roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. And we’ve all heard of Global Warming by now…

This vaccine, along with other anti-methane methods, could allow those who want to keep eating meat and dairy products to do just that – but in a more environmentally friendly way. Now, that’s moore like it (we’ll stop now).

Through a process known as enteric fermentation - a digestive process where carbohydrates are broken down by microorganisms into simple molecules for absorption into the bloodstream of an animal - these microbes decompose and ferment the plant materials eaten by the animals, producing methane as a by-product. To release the pressure that can build up as this gas is produced, the animals then burp it out - excuse you! So, methane comes out of its mouth instead of…let’s say, other areas.  

And on that note, one slightly out there approach has been proposed by some students at the Royal College of Art in London. They’ve proposed to fit cows with burp-collecting backpacks! Gross but come on – how cool is that?! The students have designed a device that could be attached to a cow’s nose ring to covert the exhaled methane into the less potent carbon dioxide.  

Anyway, back to the vaccine…

So far, only a small number of cows (and sheep) have been given the vaccine in trials by the AgResearch team in New Zealand, but from this small number, the team has picked up a good level of antibody in the saliva and the largest part of the stomach. Having shown that vaccinated animals are making the antibody, they’re now trying to demonstrate that it does suppress the creation of methane.  

But what about changing their diets all together? The more fibre a cow eats, the more methane it produces, but some scientists have said that adding legumes and various oils to their diet can be helpful too. Even adding seaweed to a cow’s diet has been shown to beat the methane producing bugs.

Cows may have a bad rep, but thanks to the wonderful world of STEM, they could soon be helping to save the planet. Now that’s moo-sic to our ears!

Next article: What’s next, flying cars? Well actually…

Warning: may blow your mind!

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