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From Cattle to Carbon: How Sustainable Livestock Farming Can Reduce GHG & Methane Emissions

What if a new super food could be used to lower (or eliminate) carbon emissions from cattle?

Livestock farming plays a critical role in our food system but also contributes significantly to methane and greenhouse gas emissions, making it vital to address its environmental impact. Cattle, in particular, are major methane contributors, and tackling these emissions is crucial for a sustainable future.

Throughout the article, we will explore the problems faced by the livestock industry, examine innovative solutions, and discuss the challenges in scaling up these solutions for broader adoption. Furthermore, we will consider the need for education and effective communication to bridge the knowledge gap and drive change in agriculture.

Special thanks to Rowena Pullan from CH4 Global, Inc. for her insights and analysis!

The Problems Faced

Livestock is a significant contributor to methane and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global livestock accounts for about 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is particularly concerning, as it is a potent greenhouse gas with a warming potential of 28 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale (GWP 100). Livestock is responsible for approximately 40% of all anthropogenic methane emissions. This is primarily due to enteric fermentation in the digestive systems of ruminant animals such as cows and sheep and manure management practices. The high methane emissions from livestock significantly contribute to climate change and highlight the importance of reducing our reliance on animal-based agriculture to mitigate its environmental impact.

A study by Gibbs and Johnson published in 1994 has identified cattle as the most significant contributor to methane emissions, accounting for 73% of the 80 million tonnes produced annually. Research from UC Davis further highlights the environmental impact of cattle farming, indicating that a single cow can generate approximately 220 pounds of methane annually. This data underscores the pressing need to address the substantial emissions produced by the cattle industry to mitigate its environmental impact and reduce greenhouse gases.

Countries have been seeking to decrease livestock methane emissions for several decades. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992, and since then, various agreements and protocols have been developed to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol included methane emissions from livestock as part of its emissions reduction targets. More recently, the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, aims to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognizes the importance of reducing methane emissions from agriculture, including livestock, and encourages countries to take action to reduce these emissions. As a result, many countries have developed policies and initiatives to address methane emissions from livestock and promote more sustainable agricultural practices.

Livestock farming plays a crucial role in our agriculture chain. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock farming accounts for around 70% of global agricultural land use. It is an essential source of income for millions of farmers worldwide. In 2021, the global livestock population was estimated to be over 23 billion animals, including cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry.

According to the USDA ERS, in the United States alone, in 2022, cattle production represented about 17 percent of the $462 billion in total cash receipts for agricultural commodities. In addition, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the United States cattle inventory experienced a 3% decline, totaling 89.3 million head as of January 1, 2023, compared to 92.1 million a year ago.

Another significant challenge is the widespread confusion surrounding the various scientific terms commonly used, frequently leading to misunderstandings among people.

The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure used to compare the warming effects of different greenhouse gases (GHGs) over a specific time horizon. GWP20 and GWP100 are two commonly used time horizons, representing 20 and 100 years, respectively. The primary difference between GWP20 and GWP100 is the time frame in which the warming effects of various GHGs are evaluated. GWP20 provides a short-term perspective, emphasizing the impact of GHGs with relatively shorter atmospheric lifetimes, such as methane. In contrast, GWP100 offers a long-term perspective, focusing on the cumulative warming effects of GHGs with longer atmospheric lifetimes, like carbon dioxide. Policymakers and researchers utilize these time horizons to prioritize and target different GHGs depending on their specific environmental goals, emphasizing short-term or long-term climate change mitigation strategies.

In the United States, there exists a knowledge gap among farmers regarding the impact of carbon and methane emissions on climate change and the specific sources of these emissions on their farms. This lack of understanding can hinder the adoption of sustainable practices, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities. Farmers may be unaware of their environmental footprint or the potential long-term consequences of their actions due to inadequate access to accurate and up-to-date information. This knowledge gap represents a significant challenge to effectively addressing the emissions generated by the agriculture sector. It underscores the need for continued efforts to raise awareness and understanding among farmers.

Altering Feed To Reduce Methane Emissions: The Magic Of Asparagopsis

The inclusion of Asparagopsis, a type of seaweed, in cattle feed has been found to reduce methane emissions in livestock significantly. A study conducted by Kinley et al. in 2020 demonstrated that adding just 0.10 to 0.20% of Asparagopsis to cattle's diet could lead to a substantial decrease in methane emissions by 40 to 98%, respectively. Additionally, this dietary change resulted in increased weight gain in cattle, with gains of 53% and 48%, further enhancing the potential benefits of using Asparagopsis in livestock feed.

Another study by Roque et al. in 2019 revealed similar promising results, showing that supplementing the cattle diet with Asparagopsis combined with Rhodes grass hay could contribute to a remarkable 99% decrease in methane production. These findings indicate that altering cattle feed to include specific additives like Asparagopsis can significantly mitigate the environmental impact of methane emissions from livestock while promoting healthier and more efficient weight gain in cattle. The growing body of research on this topic offers valuable insights into innovative and sustainable solutions for the agriculture industry to address the challenges posed by climate change.

Rowena Pullan, Chief Brand Guardian at CH4 Global, stated, "Our ambition is to reach 150 million cattle across all six continents within five years. By incorporating our Asparagopsis-based feed solution, we aim to reduce 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent, an impact comparable to decommissioning approximately 50-100 million fossil-fueled cars. We grow the algae in our proprietary facilities to ensure a pure, high-quality product. Although our system can arguably be replicated anywhere in the world, our current plans target the North American, Australian, and European markets, representing the largest cattle markets. By focusing on these regions, we at CH4 Global aim to make a substantial impact on reducing methane emissions in the livestock industry and contribute to global climate change mitigation efforts."

Beyond the environmental benefits associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, farmers can leverage carbon credits as an additional source of income. Carbon credit prices can vary from a few dollars to US$80, depending on the source and the current market conditions. By saving 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalent, farmers across the globe could potentially generate between $10 billion and $80 billion in revenue. This significant increase in potential revenue offers a powerful financial incentive for farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

Moreover, Rowena highlights the added benefits farmers can capitalize on when marketing their meat and dairy products. As more companies and consumers seek products with lower carbon footprints, they may be willing to pay a premium for goods produced more sustainably. Farmers can tap into this growing market demand for environmentally responsible options by emphasizing the lower carbon emissions associated with their products, further enhancing the financial viability of adopting sustainable practices in their operations.

A recent McKinsey article proved the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for more sustainable products. Indeed the article states, “ Consumer research suggests that consumers are willing to pay a premium for environmentally friendly products, sometimes as high as 60 percent” The article later mentions that “this is especially prevalent among Gen-z consumers”

Overcoming Challenges To Scale

One of the main challenges to the widespread adoption of Asparagopsis as a supplement in cattle feed is the slow regulatory adoption in countries like Europe and the United States. Although authorities are beginning to investigate the potential benefits of incorporating Asparagopsis into livestock diets, it may take several years before it is legally authorized for use. This delay in regulatory approval can hinder the progress of sustainable farming practices and the overall reduction of methane emissions in the agriculture sector.

Rowan Pullan remarks, "I believe that we already have a solid foundation of peer-reviewed scientific studies on this topic. What we truly need now is more education and collaboration with farming companies and unions to effectively educate and inform farmers about these findings and their implications."

Furthermore, there is a pressing need for more education on the subject. Many people reduce scientific findings to soundbites and oversimplify complex concepts, which is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the issues (The difference between GWP 20 and 100 is one). To overcome this challenge, it is vital to develop targeted communication strategies and knowledge-sharing platforms that facilitate accurate, in-depth comprehension of Asparagopsis' potential benefits and its role in mitigating the environmental impacts of livestock farming. By bridging this knowledge gap, stakeholders can better appreciate the importance of adopting innovative and sustainable solutions to address the challenges of climate change.

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