In 2002 and 2003, research conducted by focus groups found out what New Zealanders think about using genetically modified bacteria to reduce the methane production from sheep.
is a . It is produced in many industrial processes. It is also produced by living in the digestive tracts of mammals. What do New Zealanders think about using bacteria to reduce the production of methane in sheep?
The methane problem
Methane makes up the biggest part of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions. It absorbs heat radiating from the Earth and traps it in the atmosphere. This increases the temperature, leading to global warming.
Animals, such as sheep, with an all-grass diet use bacteria that live in the gut to break downto get nutrition. This produces lots of methane. The gas collects in the stomach and is usually belched out. Sheep produce a lot of methane and are the main source of atmospheric methane in New Zealand.
By signing the, New Zealand agreed to reduce the amount of its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels. Reducing the amount of methane emissions from sheep would help New Zealand meet these obligations.
A possible solution
Adding a different type of bacterium to the intestines of sheep could slow down the methane-producing bacteria, reducing the amount of methane produced. These bacteria could be introduced using adevice that would be inserted into the sheep's stomach.
The bacteria that would be used to do this job would be genetically modified.
What New Zealanders think
The research found that public opinion is divided over whether this application of biotechnology is acceptable or unacceptable.
The 117 participants wanted more information on how big New Zealand's methane-emission problem is and what impact the genetically modified bacteria would have. They also wanted to know if the methane emissions from sheep could be reduced in other ways, such as through diet or sheep breeding.
Some people wanted to know what would happen to the bacteria - would they remain in the sheep and be incorporated into their meat or would they be egested along with their faeces? There was concern about the impacts of either of these scenarios. Another concern was whether this technology might become compulsory and, if it did, who would pay for it.
Some people thought introducing a different bacterium to a sheep's stomach was acceptable as long as the sheep weren't harmed by the device, it wasn't too expensive and it was easy to administer.
Others thought it was immoral to manipulate sheep in order to fix a problem that humans had created and that it would be more responsible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industry.
To find out more about the survey and public opinion about other biotechnology applications, read the article Do New Zealanders accept biotechnology?
The AERU report Public Understandings of Biotechnology in New Zealand: Factors Affecting Acceptability Rankings of five Selected Biotechnologies (#266) can be downloaded from the AERU publications list on the Lincoln University website, here.