Potty-training cows to curb climate change: 3 stories you may have missed

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Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Scientists are toilet-training baby cows to cut emissions 

Bovine potty-training technology could help curb harmful greenhouse gases. 

The story: Cow urine is an environmental problem; it releases nitrate — a toxin that can pollute lands and waterways — as well as methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are powerful greenhouse gases. Scientists in New Zealand are training a small group of cows to use an experimental item they call “MooLoo” — a pad that helps capture and sustainably neutralize harmful urine by-products, Sybilla Gross reports for Bloomberg.

“We’ve shown proof of concept that we can train cows and train them easily,” psychology professor Douglas Elliffe, who helped develop the program, told Bloomberg.

The big picture: There are about 1.4 billion cows on Earth. That’s a lot of climate-warming waste. Plus, each cow requires a large amount of land and feed — making cattle ranch expansion the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon. The need to reduce livestock’s environmental impacts has put cows at the center of countless innovative experiments, including recent attempts to supply them with burp masks that capture methane emissions and feed them kombucha cocktails to reducing digestive gases.

Read more here

Experts warn that extreme weather is leading to more contact between people and animals.

The story: Climate change is forcing animals to migrate, putting them in closer contact with humans, reports Daisy Dunne for The Independent. Scientists point to recent clashes: Fires in the American west are forcing large predators like bears into densely populated areas; extreme droughts in India are bringing elephants into conflict with humans; and marine heatwaves are causing whales to swim closer to fishing communities in search of food.

The big picture: Climate migration has already begun for multiple species, including many that humans depend on for food. A recent study, led by Conservation International’s Johann Bell, revealed that in the Pacific Ocean climate change is driving tuna farther east, threatening the economic security island nations that rely on the catch for up to 17 percent of their annual government revenue. “This is a climate justice issue,” Bell told Conservation News. “These island nations have a deep economic dependence on tuna fishing but contribute little to global warming.” 

Read more here.  

Could sprinkling fields with rock dust make agriculture more climate-friendly?

The story: On a farm in New York, a team of researchers is testing an unusual form of carbon sequestration, reports Susan Cosier for Mother Jones. By applying “rock dust” to croplands, they hope to capture carbon and stimulate higher yields for farmers. 

“It’s really silicate rocks that have been pulverized to a fine powder,” researcher Garrett Boudinot told Mother Jones about the concoction he’s adding to the soil. Surprisingly, rocks are incredibly successful carbon-capturers — locking up 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. Certain rocks, especially ancient ones known as ophiolites, can suck carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into stone. Researchers posit that by adding rock dust to farmlands globally, we could remove as much as 68 percent of the total greenhouse gases produced by agricultural each year. 

The big picture: Currently, food production is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. As farmers look to new solutions that will decrease their environmental impact, solutions like “rock dust” could offer a win-win — not only benefitting the climate but actively increasing crop. Highlighting field tests done on corn and alfalfa, Cosier reports that treated crops benefited from increased nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, leading to more bountiful harvests. 

Read more here.