GM could help cut livestock methane emissions, say scientists – The Guardian

Gene-modifying techniques could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, helping to feed the world while combating the climate emergency, scientists have said.

“Conventional [genetic] selection is extremely powerful,” said Mike Coffey, a professor of livestock informatics at Scotland’s Rural College. “At this point in time, GM [genetic modification] is not allowed in Europe, but some of these technologies could have great potential promise.”

Eileen Wall, the head of research at the college, said work was under way, without using GM, to formulate better diets for ruminants to reduce the methane they produce, but using GM could give a greater range of options. “You could have novel genes in plants to make less methane.”

Methane associated with livestock production is an increasing contributor to the climate emergency, as the world’s appetite for meat shows no sign of slowing down. The amount of land required to be cultivated to feed livestock adds to the problem, with its associated fertiliser use and deforestation.

Many studies have suggested that moving to a diet based largely on plants and containing much less meat than is currently consumed in rich countries will be vital to combatting the climate crisis. It would also be healthier, as consumers in the rich world are eating more meat than is recommended, though poorer people struggle to get enough protein.

Using GM technology in plants for human consumption and in animals is banned in Europe. However, the UK could loosen restrictions after Brexit. Any such move would be highly controversial among some farming campaigners, in part because it could open up rifts with the EU over trade.

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Rob Percival, the head of policy at the Soil Association, cast doubt on the potential climate benefits. “GM is a distraction – we already have the solutions to the climate crisis at our fingertips. The focus should be on empowering farmers to adopt more nature-friendly agroecological farming systems and shifting diets to create demand for more sustainable food,” he said.

“Instead of looking to risky and unproven technologies and chemicals as a sticking plaster, we should be tackling the root causes of these crises, putting farmers in the driving seat of sustainable innovation.”

Geoff Simm, the director of the global academy of agriculture and food security at the University of Edinburgh, said farmers were feeling “demonised” by campaigns encouraging people to adopt vegan diets to protect the climate.

Calculations of the harm done by eating meat are usually based on US production techniques, which are highly intensive and involve grain-feeding. In the UK, by contrast, cows and sheep are more likely to graze outdoors, often using land that would not be viable for crop production, which means their associated emissions are far less.

In the UK there is also far more overlap between the beef and dairy industries, with more than half of beef production coming from the dairy herd, which also makes for lower emissions.

Conventional breeding techniques have also played a role in cutting livestock emissions, with the UK now producing more milk from fewer cattle than it did 25 years ago.



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