Rethinking Agricultural Practices
The first step is thinking about how we increase food production, while also reducing GHG emissions – even though the two are inextricably linked. Simply put, the problem with our current practices is that cows and sheep eat grass, which is digested by a complex group of microorganisms living within the gut of the animal; and as a result of this digestion, methane gas is produced. Shockingly, methane emissions from cows and sheep account for more than 40% of EU agricultural GHG emissions. In collaboration with Teagasc, our group is working on innovative solutions to stop methane production from within the animal without causing any harm or adverse effects to downstream meat/dairy products. Our goal is to find creative ways to inhibit the group of microorganisms that produce methane, without affecting the bacteria which help the animal digest its food.
Alison and Caroline, two PhD students on the project co-supervised by Prof. Sinead Waters from Teagasc, achieve this by manipulating diets. Testing out different feeding strategies on cows and sheep, they work to pin down the optimal feeding regime that will reduce emissions. Caroline says of the project, “I’m working on developing methane inhibitors for ruminant animals (cows, sheep and goats), which have the potential to reduce emissions and improve animal efficiency. Creating a cleaner, safer and more sustainable environment for all is what has always inspired me, and this research is doing just that. It’s also incredibly rewarding to work on developing these technologies which will benefit farmers as well as the environment!”
Relatedly, agriculture produces waste in the form of manures and slurries that are legally required to be stored on site before they can be reused as fertilisers. As they sit in storage, these wastes also produce and release methane into the atmosphere, accounting for an additional 16% of EU agricultural GHG emissions. Fortunately, we can use these same processes to reduce methane emissions in stored slurries without reducing the nutrient capacity of the material.