Scot scientists target climate-friendly cows to cut greenhouse gas emissions

Cattle differ in their digestive efficiency, so breeding could be part of our climate strategy. Photograph: Getty
Cattle differ in their digestive efficiency, so breeding could be part of our climate strategy. Photograph: Getty
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Work by Scottish scientists could see farms being stocked with climate-friendly cattle bred for their efficiency at turning fodder into meat while producing as little greenhouse gas as possible.

Agriculture accounts for about a fifth of Scotland’s climate warming emissions and methane makes up more than half of emissions from Scottish agriculture. Much of it is produced by livestock.

Academics have for some time discussed the possibility of breeding cattle that generate less methane.

Now researchers from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and the University of Aberdeen have identified a link between an animal’s genetic make-up, the bacteria in its digestive system and the amount of methane it produces.

They believe findings from their GreenCow project could one day help farmers meet the growing demand for meat, which has tripled globally in 40 years, while minimising the environmental impact.

“Nearly a fifth of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture,” said Professor Richard Dewhurst, at SRUC.

“We are finding that reducing greenhouse gas emissions goes hand in hand with efficient, productive livestock farming.

“Our GreenCow research has allowed us to identify a number of things that will help to reduce global methane emissions, including animal diet and breeding strategies.

“We’ve also found that producing animals that live longer and are more fertile leads to food security as well as reduced emissions.”

The study looked at interactions between an animal’s genetic background, diet and gut bacteria. Researchers identified microbial community profiles that can identify cattle that use feed efficiently while emitting less methane.

The findings could help the agriculture sector cut its carbon footprint and work towards meeting international goals set out in the Paris climate agreement. Scotland has some of the world’s most ambitious emissions targets, aiming for a 42 per cent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 and an 80 per cent drop by 2050.

The latest findings are “very much a first”, according to Professor John Wallace, from the University of Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute.

“The results have huge implications for breeding farm animals on the basis of their gut microbes, for better digestion of the feed, lower greenhouse gas emissions and many other possible applications.”

Professor Mick Watson, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said the team had used a technique called metagenomics, which involves analysing the genetic composition of an entire organism including the microbes within it.