If someone told you cow burps hold the key to global warming, you might have them committed. As it turns out, though, the commitment of scientists to greening the planet with genetics has led them to an unlikely pollution source. Long before “The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC” was released in the Republic of Korea, researchers here at home were hard at work doing their part for the planet.
By now, much of the world is aware of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC. According to the report, accomplishing this would require rapid and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. What’s less well-known is that Alberta researchers have been leading the charge for years now to reduce one of the worst global warming offenders: methane.
In conjunction with their colleagues in other parts of Canada and around the world, Alberta scientists are involved in ground-breaking climate change research. Their focus is applying genomics – the sequencing and analysis of an organism’s DNA – to boost feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy and beef cattle.
Much like humans, the guts of ruminants (cud-chomping, hoofed mammals such as cows and sheep) are loaded with microbes that aid the breakdown of food as it passes through their four stomach chambers. Unfortunately in one of these parts, the rumen, the microbial-assisted fermentation of food releases a considerable amount of methane in the form of burps.
While methane doesn’t linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. By lowering the methane emitted when cows burp, this research targets a major greenhouse gas that is said to have 25 times the potential of CO2 for global warming.
As well, animals that are fed efficiently produce less manure, thereby further reducing the environmental footprint. Greater feed efficiency also makes the entire industry greener as farmers have to use fewer resources overall; for example, less grain needs to be grown to feed cattle.
For those in agriculture, it means doing the right thing for the environment and reducing current feed costs, a major expense. Estimates show that breeding for increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions can lower feed costs by $108 per cow per year and decrease methane emissions by 11-26%.
Of course, combating global warming with cutting edge research is no small task. Genomic work relies on massive amounts of data, which is why Alberta scientists have helped forge a global coalition of countries working towards a common goal.
“What is unique about this research is the international nature of it,” said Gijs van Rooijen, Chief Scientific Officer at Genome Alberta. “Through this approach, we can take advantage of huge data sets generated by other jurisdictions, working with scientists in the lab and investigators in the field. In the process, we’re finding common ground and developing joint research goals for dealing with the effects of climate change.”
There is still much data to gather, research to do and progress to make. In the meantime, while the IPCC calls for immediate environmental efforts on a global scale, it’s comforting to know that work is well underway in our own backyard.