Last week, the food company Danone announced that it would cut absolute methane emissions from its fresh milk supply chain by 30% by 2030. This would have significant climate benefits considering that agriculture—mostly dairy and beef—accounts for the largest share of global methane emissions and Danone is one of the world’s largest dairy companies.
Not surprisingly, then, the announcement made waves. A day after Danone’s pledge, far right media personality Tucker Carlson was entertaining guests like Stephanie Nash, a Tennessee farmer, while falsely claiming that “[farmers] are being told they have to sabotage their own operations” by placing “masks and diapers on cows to trap their flatulence and burps to reduce methane emissions.”
To be sure, dairy farmers are facing a lot of pressures—thousands of U.S. dairies close each year, many consumers are turning away from drinking cow milk, and some countries like the Netherlands are imposing restrictions on producers. However, mask mandates aren’t one of them. Beyond that, Carlson’s claims are misleading and obscure the fact that many opportunities to reduce cattle methane emissions can simultaneously improve productivity and benefit farmers financially.
What’s the story with methane emissions?
Cattle, as ruminants, have evolved with a gut microbiome that breaks down cellulosic material. That process results in the formation of enteric methane, among other things. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and researchers have long been looking for ways to prevent its production.
But the original research into methane production and the methanogenic bacteria that create methane in the rumen was not climate focused. That original research was livestock industry focused. Animal scientists specializing as nutritionists, bioenergetisists, and microbiologists were focused on increasing feed efficiency in livestock production systems to reduce producers’ feed costs and increase animal performance (e.g., increased milk production or weight gain).
From a ruminant nutrition standpoint, methane production means that carbon grown or bought as feed is being converted to a gas unusable by the animal instead of being fermented into volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which the cow can use to generate energy, create glucose, and synthesize milkfat. Methane, then, is wasted animal feed. And any kind of waste is bad for farmers.
So, despite ramblings that methane research in livestock is some “global warming theology,” most on-going methane measurement and mitigation work with animals is being done by animal scientists with extensive connections to agriculture.
But do cows wear diapers?
In production systems, the answer is a hard no. And, I don’t know anyone suggesting that this be mandated as a climate solution.
In research feeding trials, the answer is sometimes. While not true diapers, for animal scientists to calculate the clearest picture of nutrient digestibility of different feeds or feed processing methods, feces and urine need to be collected. Sometimes that requires specialized collection bags attached to the rear of the animal.
It’s a pain-staking process taking a whole lot of lead time training the animals. And who does most of that? Not climate hawks. It is graduate students; again with deep connections to agriculture.
Could cows wear masks to save the planet?
Again, in production systems they are not masked. But in a research setting, some techniques to measure methane from grazing animals are attached to the muzzle of the animal. The animal takes time to adapt to these, but soon after adaptation they breathe and graze normally. What I am referring to here is the sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) tracer technique that was developed at Washington State University in the mid 90’s. This method is extremely valuable in understanding direct methane measurements in grazing systems. But, scaling it will require funds for the lab work needed to analyze the CH4 and SF6 ratio via gas chromatography.
Danone’s press release did not mention masks or diapers. But Carlson still insisted that Danone will force producers in their network to make cows wear masks. This likely stems from a prototyped wearable technology developed by Zelp that is able to oxidize belched methane back into CO2 and water vapor, thus reducing emitted methane from dairy cows. But, it’s not at commercial scale, and adoption by producers would be likely be studied before going to market.
Do environmental organizations hate farmers?
Many researchers in this space are well aware and conscious of farmer livelihoods. Far from asking them to sabotage their livelihoods, we know that the solutions that will work will benefit their well-being, the well-being of their livestock, the well-being of the planet, and the well-being of the next generation of farmers and consumers.
For instance, modern dairies collect a lot of real-time data on their animals. These data reveal that fluctuating temperature and weather extremes negatively impact feed intake and animal stress. Those negative, climate-related impacts reduce milk yields and increase incidence of mastitis. Efforts to mitigate climate change therefore help cattle perform at their best.
In addition, there are many opportunities to align agricultural production goals with environmental outcomes. For instance, industry, academia, and environmental groups increasingly recognize that feed additives for cattle, such as seaweed-based products or other compounds, can reduce enteric methane emissions. Some of these additives may also increase animal performance.
BTI and our partners are therefore looking at how new research and regulatory changes can advance development and adoption of such products while guaranteeing animal and consumer safety.
So rather than fearing new technologies or shaming agriculture companies like Danone that are working to reduce their climate impact further, we should welcome solutions to the historic energy loss problem of methane production. They just might help save the dairy industry along the way.