Could Creating a Methane-Free Cow Help Stop Climate Change?

The bovines produce the gas when they fart and burp, and it has 20 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.

(Photo: Nico Piotto/Getty Images)

Apr 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

As the mother of a 10-year-old boy, I’m used to hearing sophomoric jokes about passing gas, belching, and pooping. But so far none of them have started with “Have you heard the one about how cow farts, burps, and manure are warming the planet?”

Unfortunately, there’s no punch line to be had. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane—the key ingredient in cows’ stinky emissions—make up the trifecta of greenhouse gases that most worries climatologists.

While scientists debate how many trillions of dollars it will cost the global economy if all the methane stored in arctic ice were ever released, other experts are exploring ways to curb the amount emitted by America’s 88 million cows. So how do you get a cow to stop producing what comes naturally to its digestive system? By creating the cow of tomorrow, of course.

“We want it [the cow] to be more productive, we want it to be healthier, we want it to be a problem-free cow,” Juan Tricarico, director of the Cow of the Future project at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, told the Financial Times. The project, which was announced earlier this week, believes taking better care of the animals and feeding them a healthier grain that’s designed to reduce methane could be the way to go. Other researchers' ideas include feeding cattle a basil-heavy diet (it kills methane in the gut) and sticking tubes in bovine bellies and sucking methane into a backpack the animal would have to wear.

The catalyst for a next-gen bovine is the Obama administration plan, launched in June 2013, to significantly reduce methane emissions. Although methane is only 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the potent gas has 20 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.

In June, the Obama administration will release a “Biogas Roadmap.” It’s a gross-sounding name, but according to the White House, the plan will outline “voluntary strategies to accelerate adoption of methane digesters and other cost-effective technologies to reduce U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.”

Methane digesters are machines that can be installed on dairy farms and in slaughterhouses that combust the gas to generate energy. The hope is that the power they create can be turned around and used to run the equipment and power the buildings at cattle processing sites.

Of course, there’s another option. If more people become vegetarian, there will be less reason to raise such massive amounts of cattle. It’s just a matter of deciding, do you want steak, or do you want a warmer planet?

“Forget coal. Forget cars. The fastest way to address climate change would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat people eat,” Ilmi Granoff of the Overseas Development Institute told the Financial Times. “But that involves cultural preferences, and they are difficult to touch.”