November 30, 2023


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What do seaweed and cow burps have to do with local climate improve? : NPR


So on this episode, we’ve talked about reimagining what we make matters with. We’ve heard about why we must fix our merchandise and how we could repurpose oil drilling technological know-how to faucet into geothermal electricity. But what about what we consume? Can we remake what goes on our plates?


ERMIAS KEBREAB: Yeah. So I’ve been working with cows for about 20 years or so.

ZOMORODI: This is biologist Ermias Kebreab. Growing up in Eritrea, Ermias observed how vital milk and meat have been to the nutrition of his relatives and his community.

KEBREAB: The the vast majority of people in the globe are living in small-cash flow nations around the world in which the principal source of nourishment, the good nutrition, is an animal source food. I required to have sufficient possibility for men and women to drink milk and to try to eat meat and, you know, generally lead a healthful existence. Which is what I wanted to do and that’s what I studied – biology and agriculture. I have experienced a marriage with cows for pretty a lengthy time.


ZOMORODI: Now, Ermias is a professor at UC Davis, exactly where he research cows, specifically a difficulty with cows – their burps.


ZOMORODI: Those people burps are comprehensive of methane, a person of the greenhouse gases that contributes to local climate change. In point, cows account for 4% of U.S. greenhouse fuel emissions every single 12 months.

I generally imagined that cows had been notably flatulent. Is this genuine?

KEBREAB: It is not.


KEBREAB: So most of the gas is formed in their abdomen, so in their guts, particularly in the very first chamber. And so they belch it out. By some estimates, between 95% to 97% of the methane arrives from the entrance close of the cow. So the back conclusion of the cow is seriously perhaps 3% or less.


ZOMORODI: So for the past a number of decades, Ermias and his workforce have been experimenting with how shifting a cow’s diet could safely and speedily reduced the amount of money of methane in its belches. This is Ermias Kebreab on the TED phase.


KEBREAB: So how can you cut down these methane burps? My colleagues and I may well have discovered a resolution – seaweed. Enable me make clear. A pair of yrs ago, an write-up was published that confirmed virtually total elimination of methane when seaweed was added to chopped grass in the lab. Terrific. But, as an agricultural researcher, I know heaps of additives do the job perfectly in the lab but not in authentic animals. But there was a thing diverse about seaweed and the way in which it lessened methane.

Some seaweeds consist of elements that specifically inhibit microbes in the cow’s gut from forming methane with out interfering with food stuff digestion. So we considered we should examination this in live animals. This was the initial ever experiment in dairy cattle, and we had no idea how much to give them.


ZOMORODI: Alright. So your crew starts mixing in just a very little little bit of seaweed into the cow’s frequent feed. And what did the cows assume? Like, did they like it?

KEBREAB: Nicely, the types that we gave also a great deal, they did not eat as considerably as we would like them to do it…

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Okay.

KEBREAB: Since, you know, just like the – cows are very picky eaters.

ZOMORODI: Oh, I didn’t know that.

KEBREAB: Oh, yeah. They kind their feed. They will locate the bits and parts that they like.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) It truly is like my doggy.

KEBREAB: (Laughter) Yeah.

ZOMORODI: All appropriate.

KEBREAB: So they did not get employed to it ideal away. But – so we gave them for about a few weeks, and then we switched them around and then one more 3 weeks and then we switched them all-around. And that was it.

ZOMORODI: And all the though, even though, you’re collecting their burps? That is not a sentence I thought I would ever say, Ermias.

KEBREAB: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: How do you do that?

KEBREAB: The way we do it is, we have a system identified as GreenFeed.


KEBREAB: And what it does is it will entice them to arrive to this equipment where they feed – they stick their head into this device, and they feed from that device. So as before long as they appear in, the GreenFeed device will drop some…

(SOUNDBITE OF New music)

KEBREAB: …What we call cow cookie. So they just eat this cow cookie. As they are having, they will be respiratory into this equipment, and the equipment will choose out their breath. And then, right absent, assess in their burping how significantly methane, how considerably carbon dioxide, how much hydrogen there is and then automatically sends that information wirelessly. And the cows appreciate it. I necessarily mean, you would see them line up to test to get into this equipment.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Alright, wonderful. So you have pretty ready participants in your study. And what was your speculation? What did you sort of hope you would see?

KEBREAB: What I was hoping was that we see 10%, 20%, 30% at most reduction in emissions. That would make me pretty, quite pleased. But then, when we start off undertaking this, and I start finding this report from my graduate pupil that the reduction was quite significant, I couldn’t imagine it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED Communicate)

KEBREAB: In that initial experiment, the emissions were minimized by up to 67%.


KEBREAB: And I considered, at 1st, the equipment will have to have malfunctioned. But it was actual. But we are still left with additional queries than solutions. Would the microbes in the gut get made use of to it and start developing methane over time? Would the seaweed be stable about a long period of time in storage? Would the style be influenced and the cows flip up their noses? Or would the seaweed affect the cows’ overall health or milk generation?

So we teamed up yet again to perform a different demo. In excess of a 5-thirty day period interval, we noticed the seaweed lower emissions by in excess of 80%.


KEBREAB: Our colleagues in Australia, they saw up to 98% reduction in a equivalent demo. That type of reduction is merely staggering. We have also observed an improvement in bulking up of the beef cattle with no adverse health and fitness consequences. So it really is a get for the surroundings. It is a win for the farmers and individuals. A panel of 112 people got to style steak manufactured from steers provided seaweed and manage, and they did not detect any distinction.


KEBREAB: We also did a dietary excellent of the meat, and we observed no difference between animals that have been provided seaweed and the manage.

ZOMORODI: Alright. So you do your very first research with cows. It really is extremely profitable. You do one more review, it really is even a lot more profitable, 80% methane reduction. In addition it isn’t going to appear to be to impact the cows’ well being. It tends to make them body fat, healthful and nonetheless mouth watering. What does that make you want to do? Form of – I suppose this is the researchers’ aspiration – appropriate? – to verify that a thing works. But how do you go from owning the resolution to really applying the resolution? What do you do with this awareness?

KEBREAB: Yeah, that is a quite superior problem. So not also extended in the past, the California Division of Food stuff and Agriculture has presented their acceptance that it be typically acknowledged as risk-free. So a specified formulation can now be marketed in California as well. So it’s relocating in the suitable path. The top aspiration is then to get it into farmer’s palms and be ready to use it as quickly as feasible. And what I am thinking is that, you know, perhaps there is certainly a premium product or service with a low-emission milk or meat as effectively. So…

ZOMORODI: So probably I would go to the grocery shop and I might say, you know what? I am going to fork out the more $.25 to get…


ZOMORODI: …The lessened-methane milk.

KEBREAB: Totally, indeed. We have carried out that with energy. I indicate, a variety of states, they have this initiative exactly where you pay back a minor bit extra and you get a renewable resource of electrical power alternatively of from fossil fuel. The exact same thing could utilize right here as nicely.

ZOMORODI: You know, I have to check with, I am positive there are people today listening – possibly they are vegetarian or, like me, who are trying to eat a lot less meat and perhaps imagining like, properly, there is certainly a quite effortless option to this difficulty with cows and methane, just you should not eat them, don’t drink milk, just really don’t have as many cows, period. What do you assume of that response?

KEBREAB: Yeah, so I believe, in a lot of higher-income nations around the world, you may be ready to get the vitamins and minerals and the micronutrients that men and women have to have to guide a balanced lifestyle. But most individuals will not live in higher-profits nations around the world. And the other difficulty is that, you know, there is this challenge of hidden hunger.

ZOMORODI: Wait, what is that? What is concealed starvation?

KEBREAB: You have enough energy and perhaps even protein, but you do not have the trace minerals that your human body needs to have a correctly performing technique. So particularly for youngsters, children underneath 5 years of age, what you see is the stunting degrees are incredibly considerably correlated with the animal supply foodstuff consumption. In nations that have superior use of animal resource food items, the stunting amounts are significantly, a lot lessen. In international locations that do not – for example, in Sudan and India and others – the stunting stages of small children less than 5 yrs of age is over 40%. So the answer is to have these animals resource food items in a way that is sufficient to be able to direct a standard existence. So I think what we can do in the West or in substantial-income international locations is consume animal supply food according to our prerequisite. If you are overconsuming, then of course, you have to lower the ingestion.

ZOMORODI: Alright, so reduce the ingestion. If we – indicating, like, if we dwell somewhere wherever healthy food is straightforward to get, we however want to lower back again on feeding on meat. But you’re also expressing that we need to have to settle for the fact that we need to feed everyone in the environment.

KEBREAB: That is absolutely suitable, of course.

ZOMORODI: So, Ermias, do you consider that, if we radically rethink the techniques we’ve been doing agriculture for yrs – in this situation, the way we’ve been feeding livestock – that we’ve obtained at least one option to assist halt international warming?

KEBREAB: Yeah, unquestionably. I think, you know, who would have imagined that we are conversing about a climate-neutral livestock sector? I imply, that’s the type of purpose that we need to have to have and, you know, use it totally. Rather of declaring, quit ingesting meat, end performing this, end carrying out that, we have to be sensible of what desires to occur. And the fact is that, you know, people are not going to halt ingesting meat. And so let us determine out a way in which we can enable persons and assist the atmosphere at the identical time.

Weather change is occurring and it is not waiting for any person. We have the answer. We want to put into practice it since we will see the outcomes rather quickly. Methane – in 12 a long time of time, the reduction that you have now would in fact translate into even a cooling of the local climate. We will see that result. I imagine that we can attain into a local weather-neutral predicament wherever what we try to eat is actually – does not have an effect on the warming of the local weather.

ZOMORODI: That was Ermias Kebreab, a professor and affiliate dean at the College of California, Davis. You can see his comprehensive speak at

Thank you so substantially for listening to our present this week, Fix, Repurpose, Reimagine. This episode was developed by Fiona Geiran, Katie Monteleone, James Delahoussaye and Rommel Wood. It was edited by Katie Simon, Rachel Faulkner and me. Our TED Radio output staff members also includes Matthew Cloutier, Diba Mohatasham and Katherine Sypher. Our theme songs was penned by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Circumstance and Daniella Balarezo. I’m Manoush Zomorodi and you’ve got been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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