Cow farts are bad for Earth, but cow burps are worse. New plan could help cows belch less.

Belching – not flatulence – is the major cause of methane produced by the world’s cows and a Seattle-based company has just won $1.5 million to test a product to make cows burp less.

Both ends of a cow produce methane, but 97% of all the methane gas from a cow is released by belching rather than farting, according to the U.S. Dairy Council and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration.

Methane accounts for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection agency. And it's more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

That's the problem targeted by Lumen Bioscience, which has won the Wilkes Center Climate Prize, administered by the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah. The prize, with its $1.5 million in funding from a group of Utah-based organizations and industries, sought “audacious ideas” to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

A panel of scientists sifted through 77 international proposals presented during a May climate summit and selected five finalists with the most innovative ideas. Lumen’s winning entry was announced by the university on Friday morning.

“Lumen Bioscience has an audacious, creative goal to reduce methane emissions, a major contributor to climate change,” said center director William Anderegg. "We want to supercharge a credible, ambitious idea that may be too risky for traditional funding sources. They’ve patented the technology and they’ve shown it works in the lab. Now, we want them to scale it up.”

In a stroke of what Brian Finrow, Lumen's co-founder and CEO, describes as serendipity, the company says it has discovered a way to neutralize the organism in a cow's stomach that causes it to burp. The company proposes to reduce methane emissions through a patented mix of enzymes that could be added to the food of beef and dairy cows. And that, they say, could help reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions being pumped into the world's atmosphere.

Mesfin Gewe, senior scientist at Lumen Bioscience, holds a dish filled with powdered spirulina cells. The company plans to modify spirulina to destroy microbes that cause cows to belch methane gas.
Mesfin Gewe, senior scientist at Lumen Bioscience, holds a dish filled with powdered spirulina cells. The company plans to modify spirulina to destroy microbes that cause cows to belch methane gas.

Why do people mistakenly think cow flatulence produces more methane than belching? And why does it matter?

Finrow isn’t sure, but he suspects his 8-year-old son might be on to a theory: “He says burps are funny, but farts are even funnier.”

About 50-65% of the world's total methane emissions come from human activities. The EPA estimates about 25% of U.S. methane emissions come from the herds of livestock that produce milk, cheese, butter, ice cream and meat for human consumption.

Although methane doesn't persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, scientists say if significant reductions can be achieved in reducing methane emissions, by addressing cow burps for example, it would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential.

Dairy cows on a Massachusetts farm.
Dairy cows on a Massachusetts farm.

Why do cows burp?

Cows eat a lot of grass and hay, food that is hard to digest, Finrow said. A special compartment in their digestive tract – known as the rumen – helps by processing the food in “a soupy mix” of bacteria and microbes.

“All these bugs are breaking down the very hardy fibers of the grass,” Finrow said. “It’s a good deal for them because it’s a warm cozy place to live” and a good deal for the cows because the fermentation helps the grass to digest.

As human health scientists have discovered, the right balance of microorganisms is important for gut health.

One single-celled microorganism found at work in a cow's digestive compartments is a type of archaea known as a methanogen, Finrow said. Its fermentation process inside a cow builds up the pressure that results in cows expelling methane when they burp. The Dairy Council points out that cows burp silently.

The EPA reports a single cow produces 154 - 264 pounds of methane gas per year. Lumen hopes to produce a food additive that could one day end those emissions.

When the final remnants of grass and hay emerge from the opposite end of a cow, it also contains methanogens, which “love to live in dairy manure,” Finrow said.

What dairy farmers are doing with manure in California is “kind of genius,” he said. Some farmers are using a process that's compensating them for capturing gasses that emerge from large quantities of dairy manure and sending it to a natural gas pipeline, he said.

Lumen's proposal

Lumen, co-founded by Finrow and Jim Roberts, is primarily involved in making biologic drugs for human diseases, with large molecule proteins that work differently than traditional pharmaceuticals. The company has been working with a microbe called spirulina, to make an enzyme protein, that treats a bacteria that causes human disease.

Their principal scientist, Mark Heinnickel, who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, knew people have been searching for a solution to the methane challenge. Scientists at the University of California Davis, for example, have experimented with ways to make cows less gassy through means such as high fiber diets or adding an essential oil to their feed.

Scientists know bombarding a cow’s digestive tract with a bunch of antibiotics isn’t healthy, Finrow said. Cows need their beneficial bacteria just like humans do.

Heinnickel wondered if they could engineer spirulina to make a natural enzyme protein that would eliminate only the methanogen. According to the University of Utah, the company identified a gene that produces a protein that attacks only methanogens, and inserted into a strain of spirulina.

"The enzyme is exquisitely specific - it destroys only methanogens and has no effect on the cow itself or other bacteria that live in the rumen," the university stated when announcing the prize finalists in August.

“We’ve got it working pretty well in the lab," Finrow said. Lumen plans to use the $1.5 million from the Wilkes Climate Prize to make additional improvements, then begin testing its method as a food additive in cows, measuring their emissions over time.

Heinnickel and Nhi Khuong, Lumen's vice president of preclinical, deserve the credit, Finrow said. "If Mark hadn’t grown up on a farm, we’d have no idea."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are cow farts bad for climate change? Cow burps the real problem.