Gene-edited bugs for less methane from livestock – Kenya’s transition to sustainable livestock

After a laboratory mishap involving a consumer drone, a malfunctioning smartphone app and an impressive puff of smoke, Annebelle and Phil wake up at the controls of a two-seater quadcopter, flying over a strange land. That land is the world in 2045.

Annebelle and I have just landed at a medium-size dairy farm in Kiambu, a short distance north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. As we disembark, the farmer, Esther, greets us warmly.

She keeps around 15 cows, producing more than 200 litres of milk every day. She sells most of it to a local hotel chain, with a few litres being bought by neighbours. Her farm is an “A*-accredited net-zero operation”, an accolade awarded by the East African Net Zero Federation (EANZF) to the most carbon-neutral enterprises in the region.

We ask Esther how she became a leading light in the net-zero dairy community. She tells us that back in 2035 she was watching the long-running TV show Shamba Shape-Up on her smartphone. It featured a new oral treatment for calves, which – if applied early in their lives – reduced their methane emissions almost to zero.

Esther was intrigued. She knew that methane was one of the three major greenhouse gases, with a global warming potential many times that of carbon dioxide. She also knew that about a third of all methane emissions come from ruminant production – like her cows over there – as a by-product of the digestion of the grasses and forages in their diets. But this was the first time she’d heard about treatments for emissions.

The early decades of the 21st century had seen a boom in ways to reduce methane production from livestock. Much of it was spurred by troubling projections of future demand for ruminant livestock products and the environmental impacts this might bring. Some research was based on cutting-edge science and some on, well, let’s just call it quackery.

Researchers made some advances in developing bovine vaccines and feed additives that inhibited the production of methane. But the biggie came in 2030, when scientists identified the genes in the rumen bacteria of cows responsible for producing methane. They were able to remove the bacteria, switch off the genes using gene editing, then reintroduce the bacteria to repopulate the rumen. Methane emissions from the animals dropped off a cliff and soon enough farmers could buy a short-course oral treatment – essentially some big tablets – containing the anti-methanogenic bacteria. When given to calves, they would re-programme the rumen to nearly eliminate methane emissions for the rest of the calves’ lives.

It was a huge moment, so no wonder Shamba Shape-Up was quick to cover it. Watching on her smartphone in Kiambu, Esther wanted in too. At the time, she was already regarded by her peers as a bit of an early adopter of new, climate-smart innovations. Long before her neighbours she was applying manure from her cows to her maize and Napier grass, with any surplus fed into a small biodigester. This generated enough energy for her house and farm and enabled her to obtain her first EANZF accreditation.

A few years later, when local company Kiambu Green started producing and selling “green nitrogen” using renewable energy, Esther saw the potential straight away. According to EANZF, green nitrogen is actually better for the environment than spreading manure because it results in fewer emissions.

Switching to green nitrogen meant that all the manure from Esther’s cows could go to her biodigester. For the last decade she’s been producing more electricity than she needs, selling the surplus to the national grid. Today that surplus is helping to charge our quadcopter for the return flight to Nairobi.

With a second accreditation in the bag, Esther saw an advert for volunteers for the oral treatment for calves in an online local newspaper. She was one of the first to apply. The roll-out in Kenya started in early 2040, supported by the county government and a consortium of philanthropic foundations who agreed to subsidise the costs for the first few years.

Annebelle asks her if she had any concerns that this was a technology based on gene editing. She says she was a bit uneasy at the start, because gene editing was still relatively unknown in Kenya. But part of the roll-out involved attending local workshops where the science was explained and this helped allay many people’s concerns.

Esther explains that her milk attracts a price premium because of her top-tier net-zero accreditation. She says the calf treatment has also increased feed efficiency – so her cows produce more milk per kilo of Napier grass. She says the cows are happy too, hakuna matata [no worries].

Before we go, Esther gives us a mug of strong, sweet chai tea. I make a show of looking quizzically at the milk to see if it looks funny and asking if it’s going to make my skin go green. She chuckles. “How many green people have you seen in Kiambu town recently?”

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