Cows, climate, and Canadian ingenuity

By Lucien Crowder | June 9, 2017

Cows are a problem. They wander into busy roadways and threaten the lives of innocent motorists. Their manure stinks up vast swaths of rural America. Their meat and milk contribute to obesity and heart disease. Heck, mad cow disease is named for cows.

Of all bovine dangers, the gravest is methane—a powerful greenhouse gas that cows, as a by-product of digestion, release in copious quantities. Bovine livestock, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, are responsible for nearly 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Talk about an externality!)

Researchers have tried many approaches to the problem of bovine methane emissions. Nothing has worked very well so far. But a new Canadian initiative holds real promise. As Ellen Airhart of Wired explains in her article “Canada is using genetics to make cows less gassy,” the north-of-the-border approach consists of four steps:

  • Sequence the genomes of individual cows
  • Persuade the cows to stick their heads into boxes several times a day so the methane in their breath can be measured
  • Figure out which genetic markers are associated with lower methane emissions
  • Breed cows that exhibit those genetic markers

The Canadian approach to reducing bovine methane emissions could prove a significant step in the battle against global warming. Now, if our Canadian friends could just reduce the cholesterol content of cheese without sacrificing any of the creamy goodness.


Publication Name: Wired
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