We are all fully aware of the impact of greenhouse gases upon global warming and climate change. Mankind is doing their part to reduce emissions by making energy saving choices, including recycling waste, buying energy efficient appliances, reducing heating bills and electricity usage and harnessing the power of renewable energy sources. But one factor that we’ve been unable to eliminate is the influence of agriculture, including cattle. Ground breaking research, however, aims to change this… using beetles.
Agriculture is one of the greatest sources of greenhouse gases, since we rear vast herds of cattle for harvesting meat and acquiring milk. Cows release methane gases, during flatulence and when burping. The amount of gas released is quite substantial, resulting from the slow digestive process within the ruminating beast. It is estimated that a cow can produce as much as 100 to 200 liters per day, leading a number of scientists to compare the polluting potential of cattle to that of vehicles.
In addition, much of the methane is also derived from a cow’s excretions, worsening the methane-producers’ contribution to pollution and, therefore, global warming. Methane has a much higher impact upon global warming than carbon dioxide, as it is more effective at trapping radiation from the sun.
Once this methane is released, as with carbon dioxide, it becomes trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere and causes an elevation in the temperature.
Researchers from the University of Helsinki have identified a beetle that might just be the answer to our prayers. One of the scientists involved in the study during his Masters degree, Atte Penttilä, argues that dung beetles may serve a higher purpose than simply rolling around in the muck. Penttilä maintains that a dung beetle’s propensity towards tunneling through dung deposits may aid in reducing methane emissions. Methane is released under anaerobic conditions, where oxygen is scarce. A foraging beetle exposes much of the cow dung to oxygen and enhances aerobic decomposition, hence, reducing methane production. Theoretically, these beetles could help reduce global warming caused by cattle.
Lead scientist, Tomas Roslin, explains the dynamics of carbon release. Under circumstances where plant-life uptakes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is then subsequently consumed by cattle and then released in the same form, very little pollution would be contributed. However, this is not what happens:
“… if in the process the same carbon is converted from carbon dioxide to methane — a gas with a much higher impact on climate — it is then that we need to worry.”
In total, agriculture contributes as much as 14% of all greenhouse gases. In addition, the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization suspects this output could be on the brink of increasing; by 2030, the increase in the amount of methane released into the atmosphere, from agricultural sources, could be as high as 60%.
According to Science Daily, Eleanor Slade, who works on dung beetle projects at Helsinki and Oxford, describes a “worrying” trend in the dung beetle population:
“When you combine the current increase in meat consumption around the world with the steep declines in many dung beetle species, overall emissions from cattle farming can only increase.”
Overall, the study established the marvellous creatures to be capable of reducing methane emissions by as much as five times, in cow dung samples, relative to those samples that were not subjected to the frolicking beetles. On this basis, it certainly seems these beetles might be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle, thereby, having an impact upon global warming. The team call for further scientific research into the area to fully understand the mechanisms behind the phenomenon experienced; so far, however, it looks highly promising.
By: James Fenner