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Extra Cheese, Hold the Methane
Julia Levitt, 27 May 08

A recent innovation from scientists in Australia and New Zealand offers hope for humans to continue our love affair with meat and dairy products. The proposed solution: A genetically modified grass that is more easily digested by cows, designed to allow them to graze without producing so much methane gas. From Science Daily:

Scientists at Gramina, a joint biotech venture by Australia’s Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre and New Zealand rural services group PGG Wrightson Genomics, are developing a grass that will not only cut the amount of methane cows burp up when chewing the cud but also grow in hotter climes...

...Gramina will use sense suppression technology to prevent the expression of the enzyme O-methyl transferase. Suppressing this enzyme leads to an increase in the digestibility of the grass without compromising its structural properties and therefore less burps and less methane.

Gramina has already tested this modification in temperate grasses in the lab and glasshouses and is now planning field trials.

Reducing methane from agriculture is a significant goal in the fight to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the EPA, livestock enteric fermentation—the process that produces methane as our animals digest their food—is the world's largest source of human-related methane emissions. In the U.S., livestock is the third-largest methane emitter (after landfills and natural gas systems), producing more than double the amount of methane as the next-largest source: coal mining.

The new grass is still in testing phases, and some scientists argue that by providing cows with more easily digestible carbs, we will actually increase the amount of methane they produce during their lifetimes. But Gramina responds that the new grass will help increase dairy cows' yield, and so even with a net increase in methane, the results will be lower methane-per-gallon of milk.

But let's think: GM grass as a solution to allow humans to continue to consume dairy and meat? (Though it's important to note that, creepy as GM foods can be, they do have their uses). It's possible that a low-methane diet for our cows is simply a band-aid solution, when really what we need to do is cut back the developed world's animal-based diet (and hopefully get the developing world to rethink itsgrowing taste for meat). Producing beef and dairy on an industrial scale is neither sustainable nor healthy, whether the cows are burping or not. And let's not forget that, in the U.S., factory-farmed cattle don't munch too much grass anyway…they primarily eat soy and corn.

True impact will come from scaling back on the meat before—or in addition to—bioengineering the burps. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the U.S. leads the world in eating beef, and global meat consumption is expected to grow 2 percent each year until 2015.

For contemplation, a map of the world's meat consumption (in 2003), from the statistics division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: meat%20map08.png

Top photo by skinnyde, licensed by Creative Commons.

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the link: "They do have their uses" doesn't work.

That's too bad. I was interested to see what use the worldchanging crew could see for genetic modification that couldn't be achieved through ecological design.

Posted by: greensolutions on 27 May 08

This sounds like a good idea; however, I think the best would be to eliminate meat from our diet all together. I love a good burger, but it's about time we stop thinking about our stomaches' and give more back to the world we live in.

Posted by: on 29 May 08

While I eat a mainly pescetarian diet, I am a firm believer in small scale, organic dairy and meat production. In order to minimise NZ's livestock methane emissions we would do well to eschew the larger meat and dairy producers (Tegel, Anchor etc). Voting with your dollar does work. If you must eat meat (and I count myself in this category) do so infrequently and support the more sustainable meat and dairy options available. Or turn vegetarian. Every bit helps.

Posted by: Mab on 29 May 08

To echo Mab, meat and dairy from smaller-scale ecologically based farms can have positive effects for fields, farmers, and local communities. Properly managed intensive rotational grazing systems can actually sequester significant amounts of carbon in the soil through encouraging high rates of photosynthesis and root zone growth. Think grass-fed, not corn-fed.

Posted by: joeblueskies on 2 Jun 08

I read a Worldwatch article a few months back saying that grass-fed cows release a significantly lower amount of methane than factory-farmed cows who are fed grain. This is because grain-fed cows get messed up digestion-- they simply aren't evolved to eat corn and etc.

Posted by: BM on 3 Jun 08



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