- Methane is a huge problem in the agriculture industry because of rising demand for animal protein.
- Manure storage and livestock digestion produce more methane than the US oil and gas industry.
- Several feed supplements hope to significantly reduce livestock methane production.
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One of the biggest sustainability issues in the agriculture industry is relatively invisible and odorless, but has an even larger effect on the climate than carbon dioxide.
According to the United Nations, methane gas has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It’s found in the natural gas used in kitchen stoves and home heating, as well as in decomposing vegetation and exhaust from volcanoes. But the dominant man-made sources are from the oil and gas industry, landfills, and, most of all, livestock.
Methane-reduction efforts are seen as a crucial solution to the climate crisis because it takes only about a decade for the gas to break down, compared with the hundreds or thousands of years carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere. Climate experts say a rise in global temperatures even half a degree Celsius causes serious effects.
“The fastest way that we might mitigate some of the climate change that we’re seeing already in the short term is by reducing methane,” Charles Koven, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in the summer, told CNN. “If we were to reduce methane emissions, it would act to offset one of these sources of warming.”
In 2019, the combination of digestion activity from domestic livestock (known as enteric methane) and manure storage was the source of about 32% of human-caused methane gas in the US, more than the amount from fossil-fuel producers.
Corporations and governments are investing in methane-reduction programs in the agriculture industry as part of sustainability strategies and goals for carbon-emission reduction. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California included $US60 ($AU83) million for dairy-methane-reduction programs in his revised budget for the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.
Last month, the Dutch chemical company Royal DSM secured regulatory approval to commercialize a feed additive that can reduce methane emissions by up to 90% in beef cattle.
A joint venture led by Australia’s national research agency is commercializing a feed supplement containing seaweed, which has been found to reduce enteric methane emissions by as much as 80%.
The British-Swiss agriculture-technology startup Mootral has also produced a methane-reducing supplement based on garlic and citrus extracts. The company estimated cows fed with its supplement produced one fewer ton of carbon dioxide per cow per year, a reduction that Mootral has converted into carbon credits that other businesses can buy to offset their emissions.
On the infrastructure side, a report from the nonprofit Farm Journal Foundation found the installation of methane digesters on large and medium-size livestock farms could convert the methane emitted from manure into natural gas, which would provide an additional source of electricity for up to 10% of US homes. But the report emphasized the need for more government incentives and research resources to make this switch happen.
Methane emissions are a global agriculture problem, and the issue of how to reduce them will be a major part of how many corporations continue to design and implement their sustainability strategies. But it requires a level of widespread action and investment that goes far beyond eating fewer burgers.