Did you know that cows belch every 40 seconds? I did not. A recent article in The Christian Science Monitor states this fun fact, and goes on to explain how scientists are trying to manipulate bovine diets to reduce the amount of methane that they emit:
British researchers have begun a $1.5 million government research program to propose ways to change cows’ diets in order to reduce methane production by feeding them grasses with higher levels of sugar, which facilitate digestion. “These grasses present a better balance of nutrients to the microbial population in the rumen and are used more efficiently,” says Prof. Mike Theodorou, head of the UK’s Science Development at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth. “In doing so, more of the ingested carbon and nitrogen will be converted to meat, milk, hide, and wool.”
Researchers are also looking into supplements to add to the cows’ feed, such as plant-based fats, tannins (bitter compounds found in tea and wine), soapy-tasting saponins, and even garlic. In addition, scientists in Australia are studying the possibility of introducing kangaroo digestive bacteria into cow stomachs — microbes that emit acetate rather than methane.
Yes, methane plays a role in global climate change as a greenhouse gas. And the carbon footprint of beef is huge:
Recently, researchers from the Japanese National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba calculated the environmental impact of a serving of beef and published the result in The New Scientist. According to them, the production of one kilogram of beef (2.2 pounds) results in the emission of greenhouse gases with a warming potential equivalent to 80 pounds of carbon dioxide. In other words: Serving steak to your family is the greenhouse-gas equivalent of driving 155 miles.
But I’m somewhat skeptical about this dietary tampering; the idea of manipulating cow diets even further than we already have is a little disconcerting. We’ve seen corn-fed CAFO cows become more susceptible to disease as a direct result of eliminating their natural diet of grass, leading to overuse of antibiotics by the beef industry. Would it be better to leave well enough alone, and simply consume less (sustainably raised) beef?