Most of us are familiar with the two most commonly heard gases in the air we inhale and exhale – oxygen and carbon dioxide. Less attention is given to methane, one of the many gases in the ozone.
by Lim Wan Er
Did you know that with every breath you take, you are inhaling trace amounts of methane – a powerful and important gas in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, even if it can be found in almost every nook and cranny, you will never feel its presence as methane is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas.1
Interestingly enough, more than 60 percent of total methane production comes from human activities such as industry, agriculture and waste management. These include fossil fuel use, leaks from natural gas systems, increase of livestock around the world and emission from natural wetlands. Although methane stays much shorter in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it traps radiation more efficiently than carbon dioxide, which causes global warming as we know it. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the comparative impact of methane is considerably more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a long period.2 This brings us to our next point – is there a way to reduce the production of methane, starting from the ground level through domestic livestock such as cows, buffalo, sheep and goats, to name a few.
It is a known fact that the greenhouse gas, methane, produced by cattle are a substantial contributor to global warming. In 2017, a NASA-sponsored study showed that global methane emissions produced through livestock were 11 percent higher than estimates made years back by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).3 This inevitably means that it will be even more complicated to combat climate change as the demand for meats and dairy products are on the rise, both of which come from cows in general.
Firstly, we have to debunk the common belief that cow flatulence is the main culprit for the climate problem. Truth be told, it is actually cow belches that contribute the most methane production, accounting for a huge 95 percent at that.
As mentioned earlier, most of us are well-informed about how carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere and creates a layer that causes global warming. What many do not realise is that while methane has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, it does more damage to the climate because of its superior heat absorbing ability. Thus, there needs to be a way to reduce the methane that is released into the air.
As the world population remains on a steady incline, so does the demand for food including beef, milk and other dairy products – it is almost impossible to cut off these products from the world. For example, in Europe, there are 22 million cows that can produce 156,500 million kilograms of milk. The same number of cows also produce approximately 148,000 million kilograms of methane.5 One constitutional method of slowly solving this problem is to alter the chemistry of what goes on inside the cows’ rumens. It kills two birds with one stone too, the energy saved from methane production can be contributed towards cow growth or milk production. That is why the people from Dutch life sciences company Royal DSM have found a method to scale down methane production from the source itself, in the form of the “Clean cow project”.
The project is set for a 2018 launch, where DSM aims to reduce methane emission by a minimum of 25 percent through a new feed for the cows. The company has been conducting various tests for nearly 10 years and through the trials, learned that the feed minimises gas from cow belches and increases feed efficiency.6 To be exact, it is an inhibitor that is added into existing cow feed and can reduce more than 30 percent in methane emissions, and has no negative consequences on “animal welfare, performance, or the amount of feed they consume”.4
The trial lasted over 12 weeks, testing the different amounts of the inhibitor in the cows’ feed. Methane emissions were calculated through feeding chambers with atmospheric measurement sensors that went over the cow’s head to measure the amount of methane released through the animal’s belches. According to the results, the feed inhibitor was a success in reducing methane production.4
A professor in the department of animal science at the University of California, Ermias Kebreab mentioned that the feed has “a real potential to reduce enteric methane emissions”. However, before it can be introduced on a wide scale, the mode of action should be justified affirmatively and that it should be communicated clearly if there are any long-term impacts on the animal.4 This is undeniably true as the dynamics of action, thought process and any consequences of using the feed inhibitor should be put out in the open for farmers to see the positive effects of using the feed, therefore resulting in more positive acceptance. Another point to consider is whether using the inhibitor changes the cows’ manure and the effects it brings to the environment after excretion. Kebreab also said that “research on the toxicity of the compound and residue should also be conducted”, to ensure that the feed inhibitor is safe to use.5
The real challenge now is to get farmers worldwide to be on board with this initiative, as the project is relatively unfamiliar and atypical to what they are used to. There will be resistance especially in developing countries, where agriculture forms a huge part of the economy, and spreading awareness will help counter some of that. According to Huge Welsh, the president of DSM North America, farmers “may ultimately have an economic incentive” for using the newly introduced feed. He stated that the company hopes there will be a price on carbon in the future, or that farmers can sell carbon credits for taking part in this initiative.6
All in all, there are numerous ways methane is produced, emitted and released. We should keep an open mind to new technology to help reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases in the environment, starting from the ground in.