Government scientists are to look at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burping cows. Photograph: Peter Cade / Getty Images Government scientists are to look at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burping cows. Photograph: Peter Cade / Getty Images

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burping cows, government scientists told

Government scientists are to look into methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the digestive systems of cows, including feeding the animals seaweed.

According to reports, the environment secretary has commissioned government scientists to assess the various technologies available for methane suppression in cattle. 

Their findings will be used to further DEFRA’s progress towards meeting net zero targets by 2050. 

Last week the National Food Strategy called for the £280 million, which DEFRA has already earmarked for innovation through the Agricultural Transition Plan, to support methods for reducing methane emissions from cows and sheep as a priority area. 

According to the NFS, the burping and manure of ruminant animals - such as sheep and cattle - account for two thirds of the UK’s farming emissions, and cutting back on methane is “one of the very few methods by which we could put a relatively sharp brake on climate change”. 

Cows and sheep produce methane, which whilst more potent than carbon dioxide, only remains in the atmosphere for approximately 12 years. As a result, the Food Strategy says that if the number of ruminant animals on the planet stopped increasing, it would take around 12 years for the amount of methane in the atmosphere to stabilise. 

Speaking to ENDS, David Main, professor of production animal health and welfare at the Royal Agricultural University said that in practice, both work on cutting the numbers of cattle down and suppressing the amount of methane they produce, are needed.

“We definitely need all approaches”, he said, “and there clearly are strong arguments for cutting numbers of cattle but I think methane suppression is also very important”.

He added: “There’s a bit of research to go to get there - there isn’t something where you can just say do X and it’ll be fine”. 

Seaweed is expensive to buy and there is not much produced in the UK, said Mains, adding that while there is interesting foundational research to say it can reduce greenhouse emissions when added to cattle diets, further research is needed to work out how exactly to do it. 

Recent research by scientists from the University of California found that after adding seaweed to the diets of 21 beef cattle, the animals gained as much weight but emitted 82% less methane into the atmosphere.

For Mains, the key areas that the government’s innovation fund needs to address are those where environmental and animal welfare concerns find themselves in conflict.

“There are interesting complexities - if you produce food very efficiently it can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions”, he said, adding that this was particularly true of poultry farms, where intensively farming chickens will often generate fewer carbon emissions than rearing them free-range. 

“Innovation funding is really needed to identify what farmers should do in these circumstances - we don’t have all the answers”, Mains said. 

According to The Times, other research has been carried out into the effects of adding coriander seed oil, clove, and wild carrot to cattle diets, with trials suggesting they can reduce methane emissions by 10% per animal.

Other areas of research have included giving livestock a vaccine against the intestinal microbes that are responsible for producing methane as the animals digest their food. 

A DEFRA source told The Times that the environment secretary has tasked officials with assessing and supporting trials of the most promising techniques with a view to extending them across UK farms.

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