Photograph by Will Merydith
Photograph by Will Merydith

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 ManagementMrs. 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.

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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.