No methane in cow farts would be a big step to less climate change

J.P. Brouwer, along with his father and two brothers at Sunalta Farms in central Alberta, runs the first commercial dairy farm contributing data to the Genome Canada project. One part of the project aims to increase feed efficiency—growing cows as big as possible with as little food as possible—and reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 30 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide.

Farming livestock – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – contributes around 6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) to the atmosphere each year.

Farm animals are responsible for about 9.5 percent of global greenhouse gas output, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Farmers are trying to reduce those emissions with lots of different strategies, starting with their diets. Researchers have tried adding flaxseed oil, garlic, juniper berries, and even seaweed to cow feed. Some scientists at Pennsylvania State University are even genetically modifying the bacteria in cow guts. Simpler tweaks can have an impact, too: Vaccinating cows against common viruses mean fewer cows die, letting farmers focus on raising fewer, healthier cows that live long into adulthood—creating less methane as a result.

But scientists are also tweaking the cows themselves. The Genome Canada project, led by Filippo Miglior at the University of Guelph and Paul Stothard at the University of Alberta, harnesses labs in the US, UK, Denmark, Australia, and Switzerland to help identify cows that produce fewer greenhouse gases, with the ultimate goal of distributing the responsible genes—conveniently transported in the form of bull semen—to areas that don’t have the resources to develop their own greener cows.