Meat is a staple protein in homes worldwide. Although plant-based alternatives to meat are on the rise, meat consumption still contributes about 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Animal agriculture notoriously generates nitrous oxide from fertilizers and waste into soil, carbon dioxide, and a large amount of methane.
While all greenhouse gases are crucial, methane is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Additionally, methane accounts for more than one-third of the total emissions from agriculture. The average ruminant produces 66-132 gallons of methane a day. Livestock emits the methane equivalent of 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually.
What is the solution?
Going vegan is the best solution to combating animal agriculture-based greenhouse gases. However, eliminating meat completely from every individual worldwide is a difficult feat. Luckily, scientific studies have discovered that there may be ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle, allowing for a more sustainable meat-eating process.
New Zealand’s farming science research institute, AgResearch, has been conducting studies on a new vaccine meant to counter certain gut microbes that are responsible for digestion-produced methane.
The main goal of AgResearch is to create a variety of solutions to the environmental impact of cattle, including this vaccine. These solutions aim to allow meat and dairy consumption while lessening the environmental impact of the livestock industry.
Sinead Leahy, a microbiologist at AgResearch, has been working on this approach. As per Leahy, the methane produced by ruminants comes from 3% of the microbes that live in the first section of the gut. These microbes decompose and ferment plant materials through enteric fermentation. This is what causes methane production.
“Understanding what makes these microbes different from other types that are also important for ruminant digestion is essential,” Leahy said. “Through our research, we were able to look across the different types of gene sequence and pick out targets…for the development of a vaccine.”
As of now, only a small number of cows and sheep have been given the vaccine in trials. However, the trials have shown that vaccinated animals are actually making the antibody. AgResearch is now trying to reveal that this actually suppresses methane production.
There are more solutions than just one
The vaccine is not the only solution in the works. Ermias Kebreab, at The University of California, Davis, is also working on reducing methane emissions through what cows are fed. These studies are working on the reduction of enteric fermentation through the consumption of seaweed.
These experiments have shown that one type of seaweed can reduce enteric methane by over 50%. Since domestic livestock in the United States alone contribute 36% of human-caused methane, this is a huge success. One study at UC Davis estimated that it may be possible to reduce global methane emissions from cows by 15%, just from a diet change. Seaweed could be the additive that’s needed.
With science constantly improving, it’s important to realize what an individual’s choices could contribute to overall environmental impact. Consumers are influencing sectors like industrial farming, and if consumers demand less meat or less methane-producing meat, large-scale change can happen.