UK Hunting Ways to Minimize 'Greenhouse Gas' Emissions - From Cows

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

London ( - Taking the battle against global warming a step further, the British government is working on making cows more climate-friendly.

A spokeswoman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said Tuesday a $1.5 million study is examining how to curb methane emissions from cows, pigs and sheep.

Although cars and planes are most commonly blamed for climate change, scientists have also begun to look at the role of livestock in producing large amounts of methane and nitrogen.

Many scientists say that these gases help to trap heat in the atmosphere. The British government has been examining the link between the emissions and farm animals for the last decade.

Cows and other livestock produce methane mostly by belching, and manure from these animals is rich in nitrogen.

The DEFRA spokeswoman said that agriculture accounts for 14 percent of the "greenhouse gases" worldwide and seven percent in the United Kingdom.

Researchers from a collection of British universities began a new study in April and expect to continue for most of the three years.

Cows produce methane from grasses fermenting in their stomachs and one of the goals is to find kinds that are more easily digestible, such as those with a high sugar content.

DEFRA would also like to see cows that are bred to live longer and thus reduce the number that are needed to produce the same amount of milk as before.

Michael Abberton, a researcher with the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Wales, said sheep will be used in the inquiry because their digestive systems are similar to cows and they are considered more manageable.

For part of the project, he said, sheep will be placed in polyurethane-sealed tunnels, fed different diets of grasses and then the amount of gases in the enclosed area will be measured.

When it came to dealing with animal manure, he said the project will look into breeding cows with more efficient stomachs, which then produce less waste.

"If you make the process more efficient," he said, "you get less coming out."

In recent years the campaign against cow flatulence has been an international one, with researchers around the world working to solve the problem.

Earlier this year, academics at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, announced that they were working on a pill which would trap more energy in the first of a cow's four stomachs, thus cutting down on emissions.

The San Joaquin Valley in central California is considered to see some of the worst smog in the United States and in 2005, researchers at the University of California said that this was in part due to the large number of dairy farms there.

Jamie Newbold, a project leader at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, said Tuesday that while British agriculture only contributed a small portion to global warming, research could cut this amount drastically.

"It's a small percent and it's dealable with," he said.

British government researchers believe that methane is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) when it come to trapping atmosphere gases and cows release hundreds of liters of it a day.

In 2003, the New Zealand proposed a "flatulence tax" on the large diary industry but was forced to back down because of a popular outcry.

On Tuesday, DEFRA said the government had no plans "at the moment" to impose a tax on livestock emissions.

On Wednesday, Julian Morris, director of the International Policy Network, a British think-tank, said that he questioned why DEFRA should be funding work that's already been done elsewhere.

In the end, he said that it was the job of the private sector to research these types of issues and not the government.

The International Policy Network has questioned the theory of man-made global warming in the past but Morris said that he didn't see much harm in this line of research.

"Whether or not this work is valuable or not, who knows?" he said. "It's probably relatively innocuous."

See Also:
Protests Kill Off 'Flatulence Tax' Plan in New Zealand (Oct. 22, 2003)

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