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Cow burps, not farts, point the way to sustainability

Flatulence draws a lot of snickers from society, at least when it comes to humans.

But cows? Well, that’s another matter.

About three per cent of greenhouse gases (GHG) – like methane, the kind that gets blamed for depleting the ozone layer and heating up the Earth’s surface – come from livestock. Reducing those emissions is a worthwhile pursuit, as part of a bigger movement that must include the likes of energy production and consumption (for electricity, heat and transportation), which is responsible for about three-quarters of all emissions.

Periodically, a miraculous-sounding simple approach surfaces for reducing GHG in livestock. The latest is from Burger King, which claims feeding lemongrass to livestock can cut methane emissions coming from the rear end of a cow by one-third.

Have you seen the company’s ad campaign built around this so-called discovery? Like farts themselves, it’s pretty funny, featuring a youngster dancing around the rear end of cows, singing a country song about reducing methane.

But it’s built around wrong-headed allegations.

First, the science behind this claim is very preliminary, unpublished in scientific journals and not replicated by other researchers.

Second, lemongrass (which is typically used for tea) comes from Asia. There may be minute stands of it in North America, but nowhere enough to feed herds of cows. Is it environmentally sustainable to ship in lemongrass from afar, given how much transportation contributes to GHG? Or would lemongrass be fed to Asian cows, and the beef be imported? So much for local food.

And third, an absolute key point, is that flatulence is not the main source of livestock methane production. Rather, it’s in the burps that emanate from their complex, complicated digestive systems.

If something as simple as lemongrass could change those emissions, it would likely have happened by now. Researchers have been studying this aspect of livestock digestion for ages.

The good news is that they’ve made some progress… sometimes by changing feed, and other times through additives.

Before the pandemic, I visited an additive manufacturer in Switzerland called DSM. Over the past decade, it’s developed a methane-reduction product call Bovaer. It’s scheduled to be introduced in Europe next year, where GHG sensitivity is raging much more than it is in North America.

Bovaer works by suppressing the enzyme that combines hydrogen and carbon dioxide in the rumen in the cows’ digestive system to produce methane. DSM has research – a lot of it – that shows a quarter-teaspoon daily in a dairy cow’s feed can immediately reduce methane by at least 30 per cent.

Who knows if consumers will accept milk from cows treated with Bovaer? DSM thinks they will. In fact, studies in the US and New Zealand, where product introduction will follow Europe, showed more than 70 per cent said they would be willing to pay a premium for dairy produced with this product, and “agree that it’s an opportunity to take action on climate change together.”

Bovaer is part of the movement is towards what’s called “net zero,” the latest trend to influence farm production. It started with animal welfare, grew to include biodiversity and expanded as climate extremes settled in.

Now, the big picture is clear. Companies will try to appeal to consumers by marketing products created with lower emissions. It’s the same approach as the gluten-free, non-GMO movement – market according to consumer values.

And if consumers value sustainability, companies will aim to show it in their products – even if it’s a lot of hot air.

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