Feeding Livestock Grass: A Climate Solution

I’ve been reading a lot about "shit" lately—more specifically, cow manure and all the nasty things it can do to the air and even the climate. And my interest in this topic isn't that unique; there’s actually a lot of research currently being done around the world on how to make manure less noxious. Last November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released the report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which found that livestock is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than the entire transportation sector. Since then, research institutions, as well as the meat industry, have been investigating ways to control the release of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide from livestock farming.

Unfortunately, some of the “solutions” being offered focus at the end of the pipe, so to speak. Smithfield and Tyson, two of the world’s biggest meat companies, are investing in technology to make biofuels out of livestock waste from factory farms. Smithfield and Cargill have also joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America’s only voluntary, legally binding program for reducing, registering, and trading GHGs. Both companies have committed to cutting their GHG emissions by at least 6 percent by 2010 by investing in technologies like biogas collection.

At the "input" end of things, researchers are working on ways to formulate livestock feed that will reduce the release of methane from animal belching and farting. One remedy is a fist-sized, plant-based pill that is designed to minimize feedlot cattle gas by reducing excessive fermentation and regulating the metabolic activity of rumen bacteria. In New Zealand, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at ways to genetically engineer the digestive systems of livestock to reduce methane releases. And research from the California Institute for Rural Studies finds that enclosing dairy cows and their manure in huge sheds can reduce the air pollution from milk operations.

But what's often overlooked is that all of these solutions tend to focus on the current factory farming paradigm, one that depends on grain-based feeds, the crowded and often filthy confinement of animals, and the use of antibiotics, hormones, and other additives. But it doesn't have to be this way. Researchers at the University of Wales, for example, are looking at how introducing different grasses—what ruminants are meant to eat—into cattle diets can help reduce methane emissions. Cattle and dairy cows on factory farms are typically fed a high-protein diet of corn and soybeans, which makes them gain weight quickly but also leads to a variety of digestive problems. Scientists believe that more-digestible feed will reduce these problems and thus help curb related methane emissions. Not surprisingly, some of the grasses found commonly in pastures and meadows in the UK—including white clover, rye, and a flower called bird’s foot trefoil—are all highly digestible.

It just goes to show that techno-fixes aren’t always the best solutions, and that sometimes we can go forward simply by going back.