With climate change hitting crisis point, fingers have been pointed at an unlikely source: cows. Raising livestock for meat and dairy is a thorny topic, with gaseous cows causing the most carbon dioxide emissions in the sector. Tech has sought to solve this problem, moving cows from carbon dioxide producers to climate change benefactors.
Carbon and methane emissions
Currently, livestock contributes some 5 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Cows also produce methane, contributing 37 per cent of all methane emissions resulting from human activity. There are approximately 1.5 billion cattle worldwide, each producing between 70 to 120kg of methane per year.
Because of this, the United Nations recommends that humans vastly reduce their consumption of animal-based products.
However, research has found that livestock also provides ecological services that are too great to completely remove them from the landscape. Under the right conditions, cows can help to restore healthy ecosystems that locks carbon deep into the ground. If grazing is well-managed, over 16 gigatons of carbon could be sequestered by 2050.
One novel approach has seen the creation of ‘climate friendly cows’. The methane produced by cows is a byproduct of bacteria in their digestive tract. Using this knowledge, scientists have worked to create a cow that produces less gas through selective breeding and cross-breeding. These cows create half as much methane as the general bovine population.
Probiotics and gene targeting
However, this is a long-term process and is by no means a silver bullet. Another approach involved researchers tweaking the cows’ diets to reduce emissions. Seaweed supplements are becoming particularly popular amongst forward-thinking farmers. Early introduction of probiotics to young cattle could also cut their emissions well into adulthood.
A slightly more controversial option is to remove the genes that cause more methane production. By looking at different genetic variations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), scientists can see if specific genes are responsible and, if it could be done without harm to the cow, knock those SNPs out.
Sadly, these solutions are not going to resolve the cattle climate problem overnight. They are designed to work in tandem with other efforts that farmers and the tech industry are implementing.
Greater use of satellites and robotics to increase the amount of carbon-absorbing organic matter in the soil is another potential fix. The Internet of Things could help further – by improving overall cattle health and productivity. Wearables for cows that measure their activity, temperature, diet and location put farmers in a strong position to then improve their herd’s climate change impact.
Reducing food waste
Other sensors could improve the agricultural supply chain. By improving yields and responding more readily to market demand, farmers can reduce unnecessary waste (and therefore their carbon emissions). This can be expanded further, from farms to supermarkets and homes.
If food waste is reduced across the board, it will have a significant impact on the number of cows in the system and the meat and dairy purchased. Indeed, reducing food waste is a popular option amongst many livestock farmers.
Of course, there are also meat-free alternatives. Consumers are increasingly moving towards plant-based and flexitarian diets. This has led to a rise of plant/meat alternative companies in the FoodTech industry.
Plant-based and clean meat technology do away with the need for cows altogether. ‘Meat’ made from beetroot and other plant mixtures is now so realistic that it ‘bleeds’ when under-cooked. Meanwhile, clean meat is grown through cellular agriculture, in a type of ‘meat brewery’, that requires no animal slaughter or livestock farming.
Better food production
Given that animal agriculture contributes 40 per cent more to climate change than all planes, trucks, and cars combined, any incremental changes to human’s diets will have a drastic improvement. Plus there’s the fact that current methods of food production cannot keep up with humanity’s growth. To feed the world in the future, there must be a better way- a disruption to the status quo. Luckily, tech companies are well-versed in disruption.
Small changes add up
Ultimately, incremental changes are key, because the climate change crisis is complex and multi-faceted. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But, with everyone working together – farmers, scientists and the tech industry – the climate contribution of livestock can change from a negative one to a positive.