Food Science

Why We Should Care About Cow Burps

October 13, 2016

There's no elegant way to write this, so here we go: Yesterday, the BBC reported that a team of researchers in Aarhus University in Denmark have unveiled a new strain of "super grass" that will tame the nasty amounts of methane that cows emit when they burp. Wait, what? Cow burps? Gross! Ew! Disgusting! Get it out of here! Glad I'm far from Aarhus!

Spare me your craven potty humor; let's get serious. Methane, I'm told, is bad. It is the Shiva of greenhouse gases, lumbering and destructive, trapping heat with 28 times more potency than its sister gas carbon dioxide. The grass these little Clarabelle Cows were chomping on before weren't exactly conducive to a more habitable environment; it was more difficult to digest and therefore created more methane as a byproduct. And so this crafty team of scientists have "used DNA technology" (quite an opaque phrase that no report I've encountered has expanded upon) to make the grass more digestible for cows, lessening the ungainly methane buildup that occurs in their stomachs.

As someone who got a 2 on his AP Environmental Science test in high school, let me show you what the science behind it is.

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Cattle emit methane through a digestive process called "enteric fermentation" from the rumen, the first of a cow's four stomachs. During digestion, microbes contained within the rumen process whatever the cow eats and distill it into "rumen liquor" that flattens fiber-rich foods. As an offshoot of this process, though, some other residents of rumen—methanogens—combine hydrogen and carbon dioxide that's a byproduct of this distillation. Together, they create methane. And out it comes, a murderous belch!

"We know that cattle are one of agriculture's culprits when it comes to releasing greenhouse gases, so it's important that we explore how we can reduce cows' emissions," says Danish minister Esben Lunde Larsen. You're telling me, Esben. The unleashing of this methane from the mouths of livestock is responsible for nearly one third of methane emissions in the world from the agriculture sector. That's awfully high.

The question of how, exactly, to regulate bovine bodily emissions has become a particularly vexing one in recent years. Scientists have tried in earnest to solve the problem of cow burps through wildly varied methodologies, from changing the makeup of cattle feed to breeding cows who are less gassy to having their gas used to inflate balloons. Consider what scientists attempted two years ago in Argentina, when the country's National Institute of Agricultural Technology decided to try their hand at funneling those emissions into a tank through a tube, processing the gas such that methane would be separated from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

I'd known for a time that these large, gaseous cows of our lives were an issue. In fact, I first caught wind of it mere weeks ago when our Creative Director Kristen Miglore suggested that our two presidential candidates tackle the question of regulating cow farts during their debate. Ew! When she first mentioned it, I wanted nothing to do with this matter—I simply copied and pasted her words onto the page and excised them from my memory, no matter how much Kristen tried to convince me that cow farts are a matter of great importance.

But consider, for a second, what Torben Asp, one of the senior researchers of the new grass strain, mentioned. According to the BBC article, he "says that while it's a common misconception that cow farts are the problem, it's definitely the burps."

Of the methane emissions that emerge from our beloved bovines, 90% come from burps, while a measly 10% come from farts.

Now that these scientists have concocted this strain of grass, Denmark's environment and food ministry has given researchers 13.5 million Danish kroner—roughly $2 million dollars—for implementation in seven or eight years. The digestion of this super grass will also make it easier for cows to produce more milk. All in all, a wonderful cascade of scientific developments. But, a more pressing concern: Will methane not have asphyxiated the earth by then? Really good question. Please let me know in the comments; I will swiftly issue a correction to our earlier suggestion that the candidates should've addressed that topic during the debates. I am furious at Kristen for telling me that cow farts are "a thing" at all.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Westcoasty October 19, 2016
"Used DNA technology" sounds like a sugar-coating over the acronym "GMO" to me. If so, I would be interested to see how the health of the cows and their offspring hold up over time (given what happens to rats, for instance, fed a diet of only GMO soy, which during successive generations have an increasingly higher rate of rat pup deformities and mortalities).
Yirgach October 14, 2016
Methane sounds really, really bad, but you need to understand that is only from a clinical (laboratory) point of view. In the complexity of the real world atmospheric system, the effect of CH4 (methane) and CO2 are just barely visible in the empirical (measured) data.
We are easily confused when modeled results are promoted as accurate future projections, which they most assuredly not.
Frederique M. October 14, 2016
Interesting! I knew about the cow burps, as I work in bio-methanation, but I did not know that we could engineer the grass to be more digestible! I thought the major problem was giving cow grain (mostly corn) in the winter, as the sugar contained in corn makes the rumen bacteria Wayyyy too happy! I don't think cow burps were much of a problem a few hundred years ago when cows were free to pasture.