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Cows, Climate Change, and Chlorophyta

There are so many measures we can take to cut down on our carbon emissions in order to turn the tides on climate change and save our world. But there are some things that we might not have as much control over.

Most greenhouse gas emissions come from human activities and it's mostly carbon dioxide. But there are other gases as well like methane, which is produced as we digest food and comes out as gas. That shouldn't be a big problem since we can contain the gas somewhat. When it comes to livestock, however, things get complicated.

Cows and other ruminates, like deer, giraffes and goats, tend to eat highly fibrous material like grass. Those microbes in cow stomachs break down some of that food into carbon dioxide and hydrogen — while other microbes turn the carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methane. The cows belch out the gas, and it wafts up into the atmosphere. Since the methane is produced in cattle stomachs, the vast majority of the gas comes out of the cow's mouths, not the rear.

So far the emissions coming from cows are minimal but not negligible. And as demand continues to spur livestock production, scientists predict that by the year 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock will account for 70% of the allowable emissions to keep climate change in check.

Several options are being considered to address this issue. The first is for people to stop eating meat which is near impossible. Another solution is to create an alternative to meat, something that tastes like meat but produced in a different way. In other words, use plant-based substitutes. It's possible but not everyone might be on board with that.

Another solution has been proposed which consists of changing the livestock's diet.

Far more promising is the chance to change how cattle process their food. That's where seaweed comes in.
"It has an active ingredient called bromoform," Kebreab says. That natural ingredient inhibits the conversion of the hydrogen in the cow's stomach into methane. By adding about 3 to 7 ounces of seaweed to the cow's diet a day, his research has shown, you could reduce the amount of methane emissions by up to 60 percent.

Of course, this is not a cut and dry solution. There are still challenges that need to be considered like how much seaweed do you need to feed all the livestock just in the US? And how will you get that much seaweed?

(Image credit: Jonas Nordberg/Unsplash)


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