By Barney Jopson
A White House climate initiative has boosted a quixotic search for the “cow of the future”, a next-generation animal whose greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by anti-methane pills, burp scanners and gas backpacks.
Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is the primary man-made gas warming the planet, but methane is far more potent and the US’s 88m cattle produce more of it than landfill sites, natural gas leaks or hydraulic fracturing.
The US administration’s plan last month to curb methane emissions has given fresh relevance to climate-friendly technologies for cattle that range from dietary supplements and DNA gut tests to strap-on gas tanks.
Juan Tricarico, director of the Cow of the Future project at the Innovation Center for US Dairy in Illinois, said that the initiative had boosted his quest to create the “star athlete” of the bovine world.
“For us it is very encouraging because it demonstrates that important players out there are thinking in similar ways to us,” he told the Financial Times.
But he said that there were common misconceptions about where cattle methane comes from: “Ninety-seven per cent of all the methane gas is released by the front end through burps, not from the back end.”
His research priorities imply that the cow of the future would be the unstressed inhabitant of spacious accommodation, processing anti-methane gourmet grains in an efficient, best-in-species digestive system.
“We want it to be more productive; we want it to be healthier; we want it to be a problem-free cow,” he said. Methane accounts for 9 per cent of US greenhouse gas emissions but has a global warming effect that is more than 20 times greater than CO2, the White House says.
However, financial barriers are hampering the adoption of tools to limit methane from cattle.
The costs are prohibitive for dairy and beef farmers and the research that could make the tools more cost-effective would require public funding.
C-Lock, a South Dakota company, sells a feeding station that gives animals supplements such as basil to cut methane production and measures their breath by pulling it towards trace gas sensors with a vacuum. Patrick Zimmerman, C-Lock’s founder, says prices start at $45,000 but stresses the economic benefits of improved efficiency. “Of the energy the animals eat, 3-15 per cent is lost as methane and that’s a waste,” he says.
At Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows’ stomachs. A typical cow emits 250-300 litres of methane a day, enough to power a car or refrigerator but the institute’s Jorge Antonio Hilbert says the tanks’ large scale use is “totally improbable”.
“Forget coal, Forget cars. The fastest way to address climate change would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat people eat,” said Ilmi Granoff of the Overseas Development Institute. “But that involves cultural preferences and they are difficult to touch.”