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An Anti-Burping Drug for Cows Might Save the Planet

You probably know by now that gassy cows expel a huge amount of methane into our atmosphere, leading to global warming. But a new feed additive out of the Netherlands might change all that. Enter "Project Clean Cow."
August 3, 2015, 10:43pm
Foto von podruzny via Flickr

Careful readers should know by now that when it comes to greenhouse gases and global warming, one of the world's worst offenders is your hamburger-and-milkshake combo meal.

More specifically, it's the cow that made it. Even more specifically, it's the gases that came out of that cow.

Those gases—which are produced more by burps than farts, despite the headline-worthiness of the latter—are the unfortunate but highly destructive byproduct of ruminant animals, and the good ol' US of A happens to have a whole lot of methane-belching ruminants on its massive cattle lots.


More than one environmental organization has urged us to eat less meat, not only to conserve water but to slow climate change. But those organizations are apparently well out of touch with the average American's yen for beef and milk.

So perhaps we should turn to our peaceful friends in the Netherlands for some advice. It's there that DSM, a life and materials science company that began as a coal mining operation more than a century ago, has developed a method for curbing greenhouse emissions from cows by using a substance called a "methane inhibitor." DSM calls it "Project Clean Cow," but you can just think of it as GasX for Bessie.

The findings of their initial study were recently published in none other than the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so this is some serious bovine anti-burping technology.

Over 12 weeks, DSM researchers and dairy sciences expert Alexander Hristov of Penn State University observed 48 cows who were given differing amounts of the inhibitor in their feed. The gas emissions were then measured inside of feeding chambers and through tubes inserted into the cows' nostrils.

The result? The cows reduced their methane emissions by 30 percent.

The researchers consider this a win-win for all. Cows normally convert some of their feed into methane, a form of energy, through an enzymatic process in their stomachs. With the inhibitor in place, the cows retain that energy and turn it into milk or body body weight.

"In our case, that energy didn't go to milk production, but the cows actually gained more body weight, basically the energy was directed towards body weight gain," Hristov told The Washington Post this week.

Two experts unconnected with the study—one from UC Davis and the other from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization—expressed concern to the Washington Post that a 12-week study is not sufficient to determine the long-term impact of the inhibitor on both the animals' bodies and on the environment.

Still, the preliminary results are more than promising. One researcher from Ohio State University told the paper, "Anything like this should be repeated of course, but for one experiment, it looks pretty robust."