ALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand (AP) — How do you stop a cow from burping?
It might sound like the start of a humorous riddle, but it’s the subject of a huge scientific inquiry in New Zealand. And the answer could have profound effects on the health of the planet.
More specifically, the question is how to stop cows, sheep and other farm animals from belching out so much methane, a gas which doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is at least 25 times more potent when it comes to global warming.
Because cows can’t readily digest the grass they eat, they ferment it first in multiple stomach compartments, or rumen, a process that releases huge amounts of gas. Every time somebody eats a beef burger or drinks a milkshake, it comes at an environmental cost.
New Zealand scientists are coming up with some surprising solutions that could put a big dent in those emissions. Among the more promising are selective breeding, genetically modified feed, methane inhibitors, and a potential game-changer — a vaccine.
Nothing is off the table, from feeding the animals more seaweed to giving them a kombucha-style probiotic called “Kowbucha.” One British company has even developed a wearable harness for cows that oxidizes methane as it’s burped out.
As part of a push to become carbon neutral, New Zealand’s government has promised to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47% by 2050.
Much of the research is taking place at a Palmerston North campus, which some have jokingly taken to calling Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.