As you read this, a bill focused on methane emissions, dairy cattle, and feed additives is winding its way through the California legislature. The draft law—Senate bill 485—is the first of its kind, a new law intending to create a lower carbon future for California’s vital livestock industry.
Why is methane from cattle a public problem?
Methane's potent, albeit short-lived, impact on global warming means that any reduction in methane emissions will significantly curtail future warming. About 28% of methane emissions in California is generated by enteric fermentation, a natural part of the digestive process in cattle and other ruminant animals. Microbes in the gut break down plant fibers, releasing methane as a byproduct, primarily through burps (not farts as is commonly believed).
The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated. Without a solution to enteric methane, efforts to address global warming will fall short. Understanding as much, over the last few years, researchers and companies have put forward innovative approaches to cut this kind of emissions, including methane-reducing feed additives and on-farm methane capture.
Yet despite commitments from dairy, beef and food companies to reach carbon neutrality,
few dairy and beef producers in California have adopted these strategies—or are likely to in the near future. The reason? Cost. Without financial incentives from the private sector or government, many methane-reducing practices will remain prohibitively expensive for farmers, who are on the front lines of the battle against emissions but have been left with little technical assistance or capital financing to fight it—until now.
What’s in SB485?
SB485 addresses these issues head-on. Earlier this Spring, State Senator Josh Becker (D) introduced a bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from dairy and other livestock such as beef cattle. The bill, with amendments, has made it through several committees (including, the Senate Committee on Agriculture) with unanimous ‘aye’ votes.
To achieve its goals, the bill proposes creating a program, run by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), to offer technical assistance and voluntary market incentives to producers to use feed additives once they’re shown to be scientifically effective and safe.
By incentivizing the development and use of effective feed additives, California can lead the way in low-methane livestock production, giving the sector a competitive edge in a global market that increasingly demands greater environmental sustainability. These are praiseworthy steps.
Overall, California’s bill is a step in the right direction toward further reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle products. However, as the bill has proceeded through the legislature, several critical components were removed. One was funding for research. Research is crucial to test the safety and effectiveness of feed additives and other approaches to reduce methane from livestock, as well as to develop affordable methods to verify carbon in the supply chain. This science must underlie any incentive program the state creates to ensure it is evidence-based.
The bill was also narrowed to include only the dairy sector, presumably because feed additives may be less cost effective in beef feedlots—due to beef cattle’s high-starch diets—and less effective and harder to feed to cattle that are in grazing pastures—where beef cattle spend more than 50% of their lives. And, while dairy farms contribute the lion's share of the state’s enteric methane emissions, beef cattle are still responsible for roughly 8% of the state’s total methane emissions. By limiting the bill to dairy, beef producers and the state miss an opportunity to reduce methane emissions significantly more. In addition, California’s beef producers risk being left behind as companies and consumers increasingly demand lower-carbon beef, as exemplified by behemoths such as McDonald’s committing to be carbon neutral.
How can public incentives create a low-carbon livestock future?
To ensure reductions in both dairy and beef methane emissions, CARB should not limit government efforts to feed additives. Breeding, novel cattle vaccines, changes in what cattle graze, and other methods can also reduce enteric methane emissions. Approaches like selective breeding can have longer lasting impacts, and these other approaches may be more cost effective—leading to more feasible adoption by producers. In fact, such approaches are likely necessary to reduce enteric emissions from beef cattle—given the majority of emissions from beef cattle are emitted while grazing.
SB485 is a necessary and commendable step forward, but California and the United States need to think bigger and act faster. The environment—and the future of California's dairy and beef industries—depends on it.