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Oregano: Not Only Good On Your Pizza, But Maybe the Answer To Gassy Cows

October 27, 2010

It's one of those topics that keeps you up at night. You fret, you toss and turn, you flip the pillow over, but you still can't shut your brain off.

Cow flatulence. You just can't get away from it (particularly if you are a cow).

In 2006, the United Nations estimated that up to 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions were from livestock gas emissions. Researchers at the University of Arkansas and the University of Michigan have since reworked those numbers and drawn a much more conservative conclusion: something closer to two percent. Authors of the second study concluded that the United Nations research included factors that weren't directly linked to Bessie's rumbling tummy: land use and degradation, deforestation, pesticide use and water pollution, all negative environmental consequences to be sure, but not directly linked to cow gas.

Even at two percent, however, the global effects of methane exuded by livestock is not insignificant. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide due to the gas' high absorption of infrared radiation and the amount of time it lingers in the atmosphere. In the U.S. alone, cows emit more than 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year. Globally, cow flatulence and eructation (yes, those would be burps) account for 37 percent of methane produced by human activity. Methane is produced naturally in the digestive process of cows and other ruminants (grazers such as sheep, goats and bison). During digestion, methane builds up in the animal's rumen, the largest chamber of their four-chambered stomach, and is emitted by belching and flatulence.

In any case, it's a great topic for conversations at cocktail parties of serious-minded people. By discussing greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock, you can seem high-brow and eco-conscious, yet get to make fart jokes at the same time. What's not to like?

Over the years, scientists have tried a number of methods for reducing livestock methane emissions by making cows and other grazing animals less gassy: they have tried selective breeding, vaccines, antibiotics and a variety of feed additives, including garlic.

Turns out, they were trying the wrong Italian seasoning. Research carried out at Penn State University has revealed that oregano, when added to cow feed, reduces cows' gas emissions by up to 40 percent while also improving milk quality and output. Alexander Hristov, an assistant professor at Penn State who studies dairy nutrition, has been trying to solve the problem for six years. After trying a vast mix of natural compounds and oils, Hristov found oregano to be the answer. The extra bonus is the boost in milk production. According to Hristov, "Since methane production is an energy loss for the animal, this isn't really a surprise. If you decrease energy loss, the cows can use that energy for other processes, such as making milk." With this extra energy, Bessie can burp less (and the burps are more problematic than gas from the other end of the cow, according to Hristov) and produce more and better quality milk: in experiments with cows at the University of Pennsylvania, an oregano-enhanced diet improved milk production by about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of milk per cow per day, translating to about a five percent boost in milk production.

Oregano is ideal, because unlike most other compounds that have been tried, there are no negative side effect consequences to health, either bovine or human. It has also been long known to healers and herbalists as far back as Hippocrates as a powerfully antioxidant and antimicrobial plant. "We found that the oregano is just about the only [plant material] that has a substantial effect on methane reduction and doesn't suppress bacterial fermentation," Hristov told the Washington Post. Bacterial fermentation is necessary to the milk-production process.

Hristov's next step is to isolate the compound in oregano that reduces the cow's gas to make it more affordable. "I don't think just feeding oregano to nine million cows in the U.S. is going to be very cost-effective," he notes. Early results of the study have suggested that the culprit compounds in oregano may be carvacrol, geraniol and thymol.

Without this synthesis of compounds, agricultural use of oregano on a massive scale would be impractical, and it would certainly make your next quiche a lot more expensive.

If Hristov succeeds, the U.S. could be poised to cut its cattle methane emissions by 2.2 million tons.

Oregano, it turns out, has been something of a superstar in research this year. Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE) working in conjunction with a laboratory in Delhi, India, unearthed some evidence that Himalayan oregano oil is a strong antibacterial agent for combating MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a problematic and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is a frequent cause of difficult-to-treat infections (often nosocomial, or hospital-acquired) in humans. In studies, oregano oil has shown to be stronger at killing MRSA than 18 antibiotic compounds examined.

So let's give our favorite Italian herb some respect: it may save the world. Pizza, anyone?


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