How Garlic May Save the World

Writer and gardener John Evelyn—who, in 1699, wrote an entire book on salads (Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets)— was not a fan of garlic.

Spaniards and Italians, he noted snidely, ate the stuff with almost everything, but its “intolerable Rankness” made it a no-no for the respectable British veggie eater. “To be sure,” he added, “’tis not for Ladies Palats, nor those who court them.”

“Garlicks, tho’ used by the French,” wrote Amelia Simmons in American Cookery in 1796, “are better adapted to use in medicine than cookery.” Mrs. Isabella Beeton—author of the 1859 best-selling Book of Household Management, a tome that discoursed on everything from the proper use of the pickle fork to the vascular system of plants—deemed garlic flatly offensive. “Garlic-eater,” from Elizabethan times, was a common pejorative for the vulgar, the lower-class, and the non-British. Shakespeare made fun of them. (See “Oldest Evidence of Cooking With Spices“)

As late as the Second World War, Charles Fraser-Smith—spymaster for British intelligence and the inspiration for Q, the genius gadgeteer of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels— had to deal with the home-front unpopularity of garlic. Along with cameras concealed in cigarette lighters, shoelaces that doubled as saws, and hollow buttons concealing maps, Fraser-Smith came up with garlic-impregnated chocolate bars—to be consumed by those dropped behind enemy lines in France and Spain to ensure that they’d smell like natives.

For all who wouldn’t touch garlic with a ten-foot pole, however, history lists as many who adored it. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all ate it. Folklore credited it with the ability to fend off witches, demons, vampires, and (in Korea) tigers. Pliny the Elder, in his monumental 37-volume Natural History—a series of books purporting to hold all the knowledge in the world—listed garlic as a specific for 61 different afflictions, among them scorpion bites, tapeworms, and epilepsy. (It also, he noted, acts as an aphrodisiac if taken with fresh coriander in a glass of wine.) Later sources touted it as a cure for baldness, the Black Plague, influenza, and the common cold. (See “Six Ways to Stop a Vampire“)

There’s some truth behind garlic’s gaudy medical reputation. As early as 1858, French biologist Louis Pasteur showed that garlic juice had anti-bacterial activity. It was used with mild success as a battlefield antiseptic in both World Wars I and II, in the last of which it picked up the encouraging nickname “Russian penicillin.” Tested, its bacteria-killing capabilities turn out to be due to allicin, the sulfurous substance that gives garlic its distinctive and powerful smell. In the growing garlic plant, allicin functions to ward off invasive pests.

Which brings us to cows.

Photo of cows in a field.

Photograph courtesy of Lock the Gate Alliance

Cows, of which there are some 1.5 billion on the planet, are greenhouse-gas machines. Cows digest their food with the help of stomach bacteria in a process known as enteric fermentation. A side effect of this is the production of methane, a gas some 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat and exacerbating global warming.

The average cow produces somewhere between 200 and 500 liters of methane a day. This happens primarily through belching, though there’s also a certain amount of socially incorrect activity at the other end too. Between these behaviors, in terms of pollution, a single friendly cow is far worse than an SUV.

Cows, according to the EPA, are top of the charts in terms of methane emissions, outpacing such sinners as the natural gas industry, landfills, and coal mining. The problem is worrisome enough that the Obama White House is making it the target of a climate action initiative. A snarky editorial called this “Apocalypse Cow.”

The solution to the problem, however, may be in the works, and it may be as simple as—wait for it—garlic. A three-year study at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth has shown that when cows are fed garlic, methane production is cut in half. According to Jamie Newbold, leader of the Welsh research project, allicin from garlic kills off the methane-generating bacteria in the cows’ substantial bellies, thus creating both politer and more eco-responsible cows. (See “Can Dung Beetles Battle Global Warming?“)

Garlic-eating these days—luckily for dozens of cuisines—is a perfectly delightful practice, and we get to do it without being banned from temples, court, the stage, school, and parties.

And if done by cows—well, it might just play a part in saving the world.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.

Comments

Comments (31)

  1. Stephen (April 25, 2014)

    So let’s feed our cows garlic and ride them to work. Yeah for garlic and another delightful post from rebecca.

  2. philippe heckly (April 26, 2014)

    are the cows producing that much methane on a grass dIet or on a corn diet?

  3. LEila cahill (April 26, 2014)

    Interesting article! Very informative. What does this mean for the milk. If Cows eat garlic, does that make their milk taste like garlic?

  4. COLIN POLLEY (April 28, 2014)

    I HAVE A NUMBER OF QUESTIONS;

    how MUCH GARLIC PER COW / PER DAY. AND AT WHAT COST?

    COWS PRODUCE METHANE AS A PRODUCT OF BACTERIA AND DISESTION PROCESS.

    IF YOU REDUCE METHANE YOU ALSO RECUCE THE EFFICACY OF BACTERIAL ACTION AND THEREFORE THE DIGESTABLITY OF THE GRASSES THAT COWS EAT.

    HOW MUCH EXTRA GRASS WOULD THE COW HAVE TO EAT TO MAINTAIN HEALTH, GROWTH AND BEAR OFFSPRING?

    I SUGGEST THAT GARLIC FEED FOR CATTLE WILL NEVER HAPPEN. COWS WOULD HAVE TO EAT TWICE AS MUCH GRASS TO SURVIVE AND AS A RESULT WOULD PRODUCE THE SAME AMOUNT OF METHANE. THE OWNER WOULD GO BROKE OR THE COW WOULD STARVE OR BOTH NOT TO MENTION THE POPULATIONS THAT WOULD ALSO STARVE.

    JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING WORKS DOES NOT MEAN THAT IT IS ECONOMICALLY VIABLE.

  5. R Gray (April 28, 2014)

    With that much gas coming out of cows well just hOok up the cOws to the power plants and no more coal lol

  6. Steven trovalusci (April 29, 2014)

    Always eaten garlic and love it but who would have thought it had so many good healthy qualities, enjoyed reading yuor artical very much, tha k you. e gracie

  7. mario t. reoyan (April 29, 2014)

    a holy cow and mighty garlic…..

  8. Jung (April 29, 2014)

    please provide A reference or link to the primary source (journal article? press release? conference talk? What?) (and why are my comments all in caps?)

  9. KKL (April 29, 2014)

    So why dont we collect for the bio-gas ?

  10. Linda eckert (April 29, 2014)

    when i was a kid, we hated milk in e arly sprinG when cows ate the “garlic” that sprang up in springtime meadows. Hope the garlic cure doesn’t affect the taste of the milk.

  11. james mann (April 29, 2014)

    i was raised on cow’s milk and i can tell you that what the cow eats has an affect on the taste . at least when you make butter out of this milk you will not have to add anything when you make garlic toast.

  12. Rebecca Rupp (April 29, 2014)

    For the journal reference on the welsh study on cows, methane, and garlic, see http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/ibers/staff/cjn/.

  13. Charles (April 30, 2014)

    I’m not sure this happens all over the us, but here in the south we have a plant called bitter weed that grows in pastures, among other places. I know for a fact that when cows eat bitter weed, oNe can taste it in the milk, and it is not pleasant. I suspect garlic would be like that, and although I love garlic, I doubt that it would go well with fresh milk.

  14. Ron (April 30, 2014)

    Just don’t drink the milk. It tastes of garlic

  15. larry JOhnson (May 1, 2014)

    Is the taste or order passed on in the milk?

  16. mvp (May 1, 2014)

    LEila cahill @ Yes that is right,if you feed em with garlick their milk will taste like garlic.Thats why they should add cocoa into their fodder.

  17. Mel (May 2, 2014)

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Just wondering if the same would go for humans eating garlic as regards methane emissions. Also i have heard that white ants alSo contribute considerably to the methane problem also. Is this true?
    Mel

  18. Rebecca Rupp (May 2, 2014)

    On the odd-tasting milk problem: Jamie Newbold says that garlic in cow feed may impact the taste of milk and beef, but research so far doesn’t show to what extent. Garlic-flavored milk, however, may be a problem.

  19. Rebecca Rupp (May 2, 2014)

    Are White Ants – a.k.a. termites – as bad as cows? According to the EPA, cows and other ruminants produce about 80 million tons of methane annually, which amounts to nearly 30% of world methane output. Numbers on termites – which are sometimes called the “cows of the insect world” because they similarly digest their food through a process of gut bacterial fermentation – vary quite a bit; the most popular guess seems to be that they produce about 20 million tons.

  20. alex (May 5, 2014)

    first we feed them corn, chewing gum, and other garbage …garlic wouldn’t be so bad after all . but maybe we should eat let beef, and this we way we would have less methane producing cows?

  21. ayberk (May 6, 2014)

    sOO WE DID EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT OUR PRODUCTION OF GASSES WE ARE CONSERNED ABOUT THE COWS GASES. aS A VETERINARIAN I SUGGEST WE DONT FIX NATURE BUY MESSING WITH OTHER SPECIES MORE. LETS FOCUS ON WHATS WRONG WITH US. MAYBE IT IS ALSO PRACTICAL TO KILL ALL THE COWS AND MANIFACTURE LAB PRODUCED MEAT? SOO WE CAN OWN 2 SUVS.

  22. Alitza Blough (May 8, 2014)

    Cows fed _gras_ not corn produce a fraction of the methane. Far from blaming cows for global warming, we’re actually giving them a lifelong stomach ache/indigestion by giving them a diet of grain, corn _especially_. I’m all for people eating less meat… especially if it means we take the cows out of feedlots and put them back on pasture. Animals on pasture, properly managed, actually grows soil and sequesters a staggering amount of CO2. I have no problem with meat costing a lot; it’s not to be eaten everyday by adults, perhaps not even children; all-grass-fed milk is a much better alternative.

    You’re writing for National Geographic, geez, look this stuff up!

  23. BARBARA GLUSTOFF (May 9, 2014)

    Interesting, but for those of who are farmstead cheese makers, all that garlic will affect the cow’s milk and thus our cheeses. Could be for the better, but could also be for the worse!

  24. Frankie (May 9, 2014)

    the world may be saved but not the cows.

  25. Pearl Johnson (May 10, 2014)

    Cows love garlic plants, which are weeds in pasture. A dairy farmer told me he had to let heifers, who aren’t milked, into the pasture first to eat up the garlic plants, which they love. Then he could let his milking cows feed in that pasture and not give garlicky milk. So giving garlic to cows could be as simple as letting them eat in garlicky pastures. Today’s industrial feed lots could just put garlic plants in with the grain used to fatten the cows.

  26. Cindy Cohn (May 11, 2014)

    Cows eat wild onions that grow in fields. There is a process that some dairies use to eliminate the onion smell and taste from the milk, and probably any others that don’t belong there.

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