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New Zealand researchers seek to reduce methane emissions from livestock

Nestled in rural New Zealand, is a research center that strives to reduce the greenhouse gases that livestock release into the atmosphere.

Cattle and sheep are placed in a plexiglass pen for two days per session. During that time, scientists carefully analyze every burp and flatulence they emit at the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Center in New Zealand.

“I never would have guessed I would make a living measuring animal gases,” the venue manager, Harry Clark, jokes.

Regarded as a world leader in livestock emissions research, the center is generally funded with NZ$10 million (about US$7 million, or €6 million) annually.

– 80 times the carbon dioxide –

According to the United Nations, livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

The source of the problem lies in the intestines of ruminants, which use microbes to partially digest their food by making it ferment in part of their stomachs before they vomit for chewing.

This process generates large amounts of methane, a gas with “global warming potential” 80 times greater than carbon dioxide in a 20-year period, according to the United Nations Economic Commission.

There are an estimated 1.5 billion cows on the planet, and each one is capable of producing 500 liters of methane per day.

In addition, livestock urine contains nitrogen oxide, another powerful climate pollutant.

In New Zealand, a country that relies heavily on agriculture, about half of greenhouse emissions come from this sector. Methane produced by livestock makes up 36% of New Zealand’s total emissions.

“New Zealand has a specific problem and it is imperative that we give farmers the tools and techniques to reduce their emissions,” Harry Clark told AFP.

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– Vacuna anti-methane –

The research center, subject to approval by the ethics committee, is studying, for example, selective breeding programs to develop animal breeds that naturally produce less gas.

Clark explains that they raised sheep that produce 10% less methane than average, and that researchers are looking for similar results with cattle.

Other projects seek to add emission-suppressing additives to animal feed, or to put in a belt or mask that filters methane before it exits the animal’s mouth.

But for Clark, the most promising possibility developed at this time in Palmerston North is a methane-reducing vaccine, targeting the microbes in the gut that produce this gas.

“We are very close to the target, it works in the lab but not yet in the animal,” he says, noting that such a vaccine could easily be administered to livestock around the planet with an immediate impact on global emissions.

Clark estimates that “if we find viable solutions elsewhere, New Zealand, a small country, can make a significant contribution to global efforts to reduce emissions.”

But critics of this approach believe that it offers only short-term advantages and “improvised” solutions to big problems.

“Reducing methane production while raising more animals that produce it is ignoring animal suffering, deforestation and increased disease risk, all of which are associated with animal agriculture,” says Alisha Naxakis, a spokeswoman for the NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). .

The New Zealand government has pledged to reduce methane from livestock by 10% by 2030 and from 24% to 47% by 2050 from 2017 levels.

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But some question why the profitable agricultural sector is treated differently from the rest of the economy, which aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Monitoring portal Climate Action Tracker describes New Zealand’s climate policies as “too inadequate”, citing methane exclusion as one of the main reasons for its poor rating.

“With COP26 approaching, if governments do not take immediate action to ensure our global food system moves from animals to plants, we will destroy the only home we have,” Naxakis warns.

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