A recent article on usnews.com entitled “Moo! Cows Targeted in Global Warming Battle” addresses efforts in California to curb greenhouse gases produced by dairy cows and other livestock. The gases are produced by methane released when animals belch, pass gas and make manure. As it turns out, it’s the government reaction to this issue that doesn’t pass the smell test.
With the exception of a certain president-elect, no one would dispute the environmental impact of methane and the importance of reducing it. Methane is a major greenhouse gas that is said to have 25 times the potential of carbon dioxide for global warming. Where problems arise is in thinking of legislation to lower methane emissions as a magic pill offering guaranteed results with no drawbacks. In fact there’s the prospect of significant downside in the form of higher costs and dairies being forced out of state, out of the country or out of business, taking jobs and taxpayers with them.
Fortunately, there’s a more effective and less disruptive option, and California need only look northward to find it. Alberta and other Canadian researchers are involved in ground-breaking work applying genomics – the sequencing and analysis of an organism’s DNA – to boost feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy and beef cattle.
While their primary focus for the latter trait is lowering emissions that stem from burping, there are a couple of spin-off benefits as well. Animals that are fed efficiently produce less manure, thereby further reducing the environmental impact. Also, greater feed efficiency makes the entire industry greener as farmers have to use fewer resources overall; for example, less grain needs to be grown to feed cattle.
Not only is the scientific approach a sounder one than trying to legislate solutions, it’s a winning proposition for all concerned.
For those in agriculture, it means doing the right thing for the environment, avoiding unnecessary costs imposed by legislation and reducing current feed costs, a major expense. Estimates show that breeding for increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions can lower feed costs by $108 per cow per year and decrease methane emissions by 11-26%.
For government, it advances their goal of reducing our environmental footprint without alienating a large sector of the population and losing jobs and tax revenue in the process. In short, it lets them realize every politician’s dream: making everybody happy.
And for consumers, it means they can continue to enjoy the fruits of farmers’ labors and feel good about it, secure in the knowledge that industry is doing all it can to make us greener without sending greenbacks overseas. Although some consumers may be wary of genetic research, studies show that they understand the benefits of selecting for traits like feed efficiency and methane emission and the importance of profits for farmers; they just want to know more about the technology.
This is not to say that science has all the answers. Whether it’s cloning sheep or using human embryos in stem cell research, many scientific endeavors are subject to debate. Yet harnessing genomics for the benefit of farmers, consumers and government offers nothing but upside. Besides, passing laws to address our problems rather than tapping technology is like doing algebra with an abacus instead of a computer. If you’re lucky it might get you there eventually, but you just know there’s a better way.