As society sorts through its response to the threat of Climate Change, much of the attention is on ways to generate more renewable energy and “electrification” of the transport sector. There are many other challenges and opportunities for Climate Action including one which involves strategies to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions that come from cow burps. While that may sound absurd or comical it is actually important. There are bacteria that live in the complex digestive system of cows and other ruminants that can generate methane, a gas which the animal then burps into the atmosphere. Methane has 18-24 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide for the first 10 to 12 years after its emission and is responsible for around 30% of global warming since the industrial revolution. 60% of current global methane emissions are from human activity and cow burps represent 28% of that load.
This is a very active area for applied research and that was the focus of a first-of-its-kind forum held on May 2nd and 3rd co-hosted by the University of California, Davis and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The event was titled – “State of the Science Summit – Feed Strategies to Reduce Enteric Emissions.” (“enteric emissions” is the scientific terminology for the cow burp problem).
The participants at this event represented the full spectrum of stakeholders seeking to make dairy and beef production more climate-friendly. There were research scientists from the public and private sector, representatives of state and federal agricultural agencies, regulators, scientists from environmental NGOs (Environmental Defense Fund), representatives of the animal feed industry, downstream food industry players and of course representatives of the beef and dairy farmers. California was a logical place for the summit because it is the number one US dairy state. It also has many ambitious climate action goals and regulations, and it is home to the Clear Center that is dedicated to livestock related greenhouse gas research. There were participants from throughout the US, from Canada (Lethbridge R&D Center), and also a representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Progress on this complex issue will require cooperation among myriad stakeholders, and this summit represents a significant step in that direction. Several major take-aways from the Davis summit will be listed here and then unpacked below.
- Solutions for enteric methane emissions will be a continuation of an already positive story about how the livestock industry has been demonstrating its commitment to address its impact on climate change.
- However, the cow burp phenomenon is very complicated, and the research effort will have to deal with many variables, measurement challenges and the need to understand all the intended and unintended effects of any potential solutions.
- An additional challenge is that the most likely solutions could end up in a sort of uncharted territory from a regulatory perspective in that the existing agency frameworks and codified mandates weren’t designed with these options in mind.
- There will probably be an added cost for any solution and various mechanisms are being considered for how to cover that in a way that will still enable the kind of widespread adoption that is needed.
- Any success in this endeavor will require the building and maintenance of trust for all the effected parties but particularly for consumers and livestock producers.
To put this discussion in perspective, agriculture generates 9% of the greenhouse gas emissions in California and almost 35% of those come from cow burps (see graphs above). Put another way, cow burps currently have an impact comparable to 8% of transportation emissions in the golden state. The other important perspective is that animal protein plays an extremely important role in human dietary health as has been highlighted in a new FAO publication based on the review of 500 scientific studies on that topic.
Building on Earlier Progress
The US and California are among the most efficient regions when it comes to the production of animal protein, and that translates into a lower “carbon intensity” per pound of meat or dairy product. Much of this has been achieved through breeding and feed efficiency. Reducing the herd size in these efficient regions would be counter-productive in the context of growing global demand for protein. Even so these industries are committed to further carbon footprint reductions. Another greenhouse gas issue for animal production is methane associated with manure and that is particularly an issue for a dairy or for feedlot-raised beef cattle. The best solution in those cases is anaerobic digestion which turns the manure into RNG (renewable natural gas). This is a major trend for the dairy industry as a whole, and in California 131 digesters have recently been installed with the help of $432 million in matching funds and these have reduced methane emissions by 2.3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents. This is a very good start towards California’s goal of a 40% reduction emissions from 2013 levels by 2030. Solutions for enteric methane emissions will represent a next step building on these other advances.
This Gets Really Complicated
Cows have the “superpower” of being able to consume a wide range of feeds and turn them into delicious, nutritious human food. They can thrive on feeds that contain a lot of cellulose – a stored energy source that humans and most other animals cannot digest. For instance in 2019 California dairy cattle derived 2.13 million tons of nutrients from just the top seven by-products in their feed with the greatest amount coming from almond hulls. So, the diets for cows are extremely diverse and depending on what they eat and even their genetics there can be differences in their gut microbiomes. All of this has to be taken into account in the testing and evaluation of candidate feed additives that reduce methane production. Measuring that methane is also very challenging since the production varies over time. So the research on potential enteric methane reducing feed supplements can be slow and expensive and requires both public and private support. It is also not just a matter of the methane – any of these solutions must be evaluated in terms of any effects on productivity (milk, meat) or overall animal health. There could also be effects on the efficiency of energy recovery through manure processing in anaerobic digesters. There are many promising candidates for methane reducing feed additives, but much work remains to be done to fully evaluate them.
Uncharted Regulatory Territory
The beef and dairy industries are very highly regulated with regard to quality standards and food safety precautions. Animal feed ingredients and veterinary medicine are also highly regulated. But the type of feed additives that are specifically intended for methane reduction don’t really fit within the existing rules and frameworks nor do they justify the high cost and slow timelines if they are treated as “drugs” under the FDA. It comes down to what sort of claims can be made for the eventual marketing of these products because that drives regulatory requirements. There is one particularly promising candidate which has already gained approval as a feed additive in the EU and South America and many voices at the Davis summit were arguing for “modernization” of the US system to establish that kind of path. A solution in this regard needs to be implemented at the federal level because there is too much state-to-stage sales to tolerate a patchwork of rules. An FDA representative at the summit indicated the agency’s openness to discussion and to potential legislative initiatives that are underway.
The Who and How of Payment
When solutions are commercially available it would not be fair or practical to simply expect the livestock producers to bear the cost unless the treatment also leads to productivity gains – something imaginable but certainly not guaranteed. If “climate smart” meat or dairy products only become a premium product for the most motivated consumers, that wouldn’t be sufficient to move the needle from a Climate Action perspective. One option might be through the carbon offset market, and another could be tied to the climate footprint commitments of various CPG players, but it is not clear how these mechanisms would enable farmer-level adoption. An across the board increase in the cost of these products wouldn’t be equitable on a societal level, particularly for such important sources of nutrients. The economic solution is clearly an on-going discussion at this point.
The Critical Role of Trust
Ultimately the successful implementation of an enteric methane solution will require a high degree of trust on the part of those whose income depends on the health and productivity of their cows and on the part of the consumers who need to believe that the climate benefits are real and that the end products are safe for them and their family. The list of attendees, speakers and panelists at the Davis summit fit extremely well with what surveys show about who it is that producers and consumers trust. Even so, the trust building process will still require transparency and effective communication about the public/private partnerships that are in place and about the need to develop a rational and timely regulatory path. Watchouts should include the prevalence of “absence marketing” in our food system which demonstrates how it is easier to frighten consumers than it is to educate them. Hopefully no players will opt to use that approach to drive their sales and there won’t be a repeat of the scenario with rBST. There is also a lot of negative messaging about animal agriculture coming from those who are marketing various dairy and meat substitutes. This often involves implied climate advantages which are not typically backed up with rigorous “life cycle analyses” or a full consideration of the unique advantages associated with ruminant biology. Climate-related food marketing needs a great deal more of the quality of multi-stakeholder conversation that we recently saw for the issue of cow burps.