Are Lower-emitting Bioengineered Animals an Answer?

Are Lower-emitting Bioengineered Animals an Answer?

The meat industry is one of the world's largest emitters, responsible for about 15% of the world's greenhouse gases (GHGs) and an enormous source of methane, the short-lived greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2. But what solutions are available when so many worldwide count on meat as their primary source of protein?

In order to reduce methane that comes from animals, one potential solution is to engineer them genetically. Scientists in Australia have effectively bred a type of sheep that emits 13% less methane than the average sheep. In the US, AquaBounty salmon are bred with genes from other fish to require less feed while growing year-round and twice as fast.

Scientists are looking to apply these findings to cattle, as 20% of methane emissions from cows are related to the animal's genetic makeup. These innovations have prompted scientists to wonder whether this controversial option could be a lasting climate solution.

VERIFY: Yes, cattle are the top source of methane emissions in the US, December 14, 2021.

CBS: UK researchers study genetic link to methane emissions in cattle, October 20, 2021.

Why This Matters

Animal agriculture's environmental harms have been well documented. Twenty milk and livestock companies produce more GHG emissions than Britain, France, or Germany, and the world's five biggest meat and dairy companies emit the same volume of GHGs as fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil. A study from earlier this month found that if the world were to phase out all meat and dairy over the next 15 years, it would cancel out emissions from all other sectors for 30 to 50 years. The animal agriculture industry is more unsustainable than ever, yet meat consumption continues to rise, making animal bioengineering a potentially attractive solution.

Now This: How Animal Agriculture Contributes to Climate Change, October 22, 2021.

Sentient Media: Food System Emissions - How Can We Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?, June 18, 2021.

Possible Pitfalls

There are some major drawbacks to animal bioengineering. Some food activists worry that edited genes could cause health problems. For example, attempts to design more muscular pigs in China increased the incidence of umbilical hernias, causing many pigs to die immediately after birth. Worse, such genetic issues could contaminate wild populations.

Moreover, some animal rights activists point out that animal bioengineering is a band-aid over the real problem: industrialized meat production itself. Mute Schimpf, a food activist with the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Europe, emphasized that reduced meat and dairy consumption would solve this problem more effectively. Schimpf told DW: "We don't need more intensive animal husbandry. We need just the opposite."