Cattle in the United States release the greenhouse gas methane (known as “enteric methane”) from their digestive systems, which is equivalent to the amount of methane that leaks from fossil fuel infrastructure. Addressing enteric methane in cattle represents an opportunity to reduce the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint by 3% and simultaneously improve cattle productivity by ~6%. However, current solutions only address, at most, 10% of these emissions, and the U.S. has spent under $5m per year on R&D over the past five years to address this critical climate area.
Therefore, to establish long-term U.S. leadership and export competitiveness, we recommend regulatory simplification and an $82m per year U.S. Department of Agriculture research and innovation program. These common-sense recommendations would create a win for producers and a win for the environment by advancing solutions that easily drop into existing farm practices and convert avoided methane into increased milk and meat production.
Challenge & Opportunity
Cattle and other ruminants digest their food via anaerobic (oxygen-free) fermentation. This unique system allows them to digest roughage such as grasses and other forage and transform it into meat and milk. But it also generates methane. Cattle release on average 6% of the calories they eat as methane, a substantial loss in their potential meat and milk productivity. This methane is in addition to the methane emitted by their manure.
An invisible and odorless gas, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for 0.5°C of the 1°C of modern global warming (based on the 2010-2019 average). One-third of U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions come from cattle and other ruminants. Solutions may be able to be developed that both disrupt enteric methane production while also increasing cattle productivity. That would help reduce global temperatures and provide benefits for both producers and consumers. Currently, there are a few tested and marketable solutions that use chemicals to disrupt methane-creating microbes in the cattle’s first stomach (the rumen). These are important solutions that need to be evaluated for regulatory approval. However, additional research and development must also be done, to help address the majority of emissions that don’t yet have available solutions, particularly from cattle grazing in pastures. Additional work is also needed to continue developing solutions that consistently lead to a productivity benefit. Focused scientific research could deepen our understanding of cattle metabolism, and advance new solutions for reducing enteric methane further.
Progress on this front also requires improved research tools to measure how much methane cattle emit and relate these methane emissions to their productivity and intake of feed and forage. Access to such research tools enables researchers and innovators to develop and evaluate new solutions. Methane emissions rates vary widely between cattle on the same farm of the same breed, as well as across breeds. Currently these tools are expensive and not widely available. For example, the primary tool available measures twenty cattle per day, costs ~$100,000, and can be found at only a handful of research institutions. That presents a practical problem of access not only for producers but also for non-specialist scientific innovators. Making those tools more accessible, for example via fee-for-service centers at leading U.S. Land Grant institutes, would make them more affordable for producers and researchers. That would help unlock the creativity of U.S. innovators, and provide evidence that their solutions have a positive climate impact and are feasible for producers and acceptable to consumers.
Even when new solutions are found and proven, innovators still face a 10-year FDA approval process. This is uncompetitive and restrictive compared to other countries. Since much faster approval is possible in Australia, Brazil, and Europe, innovators have an incentive to launch their products and build their businesses there rather than in the USA. And as climate-aware export markets develop, slow FDA approval will cost U.S. producers market share and market opportunity. We therefore recommend that the FDA be given authority and direction to evaluate new methane-reducing products for safety on an accelerated timeline, while maintaining critical human and animal safety standards. This would help the U.S. position itself as a global leader in a potential multi-billion dollar market while upholding its climate commitments.
Plan of Action
I. FUND BASIC & APPLIED LIVESTOCK ENTERIC METHANE RESEARCH
Total Funds Needed: $50,000,000 per year
Developing science-based, effective livestock enteric methane solutions depend on a detailed understanding of cattle microbiology as well as practical understanding of what makes solutions easy to adopt. These solutions have the potential to not only decrease enteric methane emissions but could unlock a new frontier of efficiency for the U.S. livestock sector, helping build a more resilient and productive food system. Increasing funding for basic and applied research could accelerate development of new methods, and rapidly build a portfolio of scalable potential solutions. Capacity funding will increase the near- and long-term throughput for solution development and shorten the idea to market timeline for these products. Competitive funding will drive innovation in sectors and geographies that have significant implementation barriers, such as those applicable to pasture operations, and can accelerate adoption of proven solutions. The Committee on Appropriations, has recognized the innovation potential increased public funds can make possible, and has encouraged USDA-NIFA to prioritize advancement of enteric fermentation solutions.
We recommend competitive and capacity funding within USDA-NIFA, including AFRI, Hatch, Animal Health and Disease, and other programs be appropriated to:
Basic research in livestock methane microbiology to create a knowledge base that will support development of new win-win solutions and accelerate our understanding of host-microbiome interactions.
Applied livestock methane solutions research based on livestock methane biology knowledge. This work should prioritize solutions that reduce methane in new ways; that simultaneously increase the production of milk or meat; and that have the potential to be in a long-duration (e.g. once per year) product formulation compatible with grazing cattle. Such technology already exists for cattle nutrition and disease prevention.
Perform surveys and other social science research to understand barriers and opportunities to low-cost and low-complexity implementation for American producers and ranchers. This research will help guide the development of new solutions and tailor the design and deployment of solutions among the diversity of U.S. operations. Together, this will maximize the global market potential of U.S. innovation.
We recommend Congress request of USDA a full-accounting and report of its current spending on enteric methane R&D across all its programs.
II. CREATE PUBLIC FEE-FOR-SERVICE TESTING FACILITIES FOR LIVESTOCK METHANE
Funds Needed: $15,000,000 per year
Access to methane test facilities, from the laboratory to the dairy barn, is a bottleneck. It limits how many innovative ideas for solutions can be tested. Only a small number of institutions worldwide have the tools needed to test methane, and outside access to those tools is limited. We recommend funding be authorized and appropriated for innovation-enabling research infrastructure to USDA-ARS through USDA Equipment Grants and USDA-AFRI. This funding would:
Authorize and establish a nationwide network of fee-for-access livestock methane research facilities. This equips the USDA-ARS laboratories with research measurement equipment and technical staff by partnering with U.S. land grant universities that already possess the necessary research cattle management expertise. Joint investment with them and partial support from research users will quickly make the U.S. an international leader in livestock methane research.
Develop a national center for pre-livestock testing and screening of potential products. This will serve as a user facility. Specialized cattle researchers shouldn’t be the only ones who can test new ideas for reducing livestock enteric methane. Accessible facilities can unlock innovation from the U.S.’ world-leading biology researchers.
III. FUND DEVELOPMENT OF LOW-COST CATTLE METHANE MEASUREMENT TECHNOLOGY
Funds needed: $15,000,000 per year
What is measured guides innovation and management, and what we measure easily and consistently, we improve. Producers measure milk production on every cow, every day, leading to a 300% productivity increase since 1950. But for all producers and most researchers, livestock methane production is invisible: current livestock methane measurement equipment costs about $100,000 for a system that measures 20-30 cattle per day. We recommend authorizing and appropriating $15 million per year to USDA-NIFA, Division of Animal Systems in order to:
Develop lower-cost measurement systems so every research barn can measure livestock methane. U.S. land grant universities have over ten thousand research cattle. Equipped with measurement systems, they could all provide livestock methane research data.
Develop farm-integrable measurement systems that make methane emissions and costs visible to U.S. producers, enabling them to experiment and innovate. Methane is a loss for livestock production. If producers can see it, they’ll work to decrease methane and improve their bottom line.
A $15 million annual budget for this technology development will lead to rapid improvements. Part of this would fund interdisciplinary projects that bring engineers from across industry and livestock experts together. We recommend another part be framed as a grand challenge to achieve cost and performance targets connected to a government procurement market-shaping program.
IV. MODERNIZE THE US FOOD, DRUG, AND COSMETIC ACT
Funds Needed: $2,000,000 per year
Current anti-methane feed additives are regulated as drugs, requiring a ten-year approval process. As European export markets increasingly regulate emissions, this may lead to a lack of competitiveness for U.S. products. To address this, Congress asked the FDA to review options to accelerate the approval of environmentally beneficial additives. One mechanism to shorten the regulatory timeframe of approval is to amend an existing approval pathway which exists for feed additives. Legislation has been introduced (Innovative Feed Enhancement and Economic Development Act of 2023) which would, in part, amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to include Zootechnical Animal Feed Substances as a category under the feed additive petition process. This could reduce the approval timeline for environmentally beneficial additives by 5-fold.
We recommend Congress continue to support the modernization of the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and authorize and appropriate an additional $2 million per year to the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine, for personnel resources and infrastructure to robustly evaluate new anti-methane solutions for safety and efficacy and make new solutions available to farmers.
V. SUPPORT ADOPTION OF ENTERIC METHANE MITIGATION STRATEGIES THROUGH EXISTING PROGRAMS
Funds Needed: No Additional Funding
In a recent survey, fewer than 30% of U.S. producers indicated they would be willing to adopt an enteric methane solution if they had to bear the cost. Government or other funding assistance was the second most important factor influencing the use of potential solutions behind increased productivity. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the flagship program administered by USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service and can provide financial assistance for the implementation of conservation practices, including practices that reduce greenhouse gasses. In order to promote the adoption of enteric methane mitigation solutions, we recommend USDA-NRCS:
Review conservation practice standards to include new enteric methane mitigation solutions when applicable and include mechanisms to incentivize established methods to reduce enteric methane (i.e. lipid supplementation). Encourage regular updating of practice standards to rapidly incorporate new solutions as they are approved for use, and train technical assistance providers on the implementation of enteric methane mitigation strategies.
Enteric methane is responsible for ~15% or 0.16℃ of current warming. Protein production from animal agriculture is expected to increase in the coming decades to meet increased capita and per capita consumption. Early research on methane mitigating feed additives have demonstrated enteric methane reductions up to 90% in animal trials. Technology nearing regulatory approval has demonstrated 20-30% reductions. However, these solutions aren’t yet applicable to grazing cattle. With increased research and deployment efforts, enteric methane mitigation can help meet future protein demand with fewer animals and reduce overall warming by more than 10%.
Today, no products are approved by the FDA to reduce enteric methane emissions. However, some nutritional approaches are effective, including feeding higher amounts of lipids in an animal’s diet, since lipids increase the calories available for the animal, but do not promote methane production. However, lipids can be expensive for producers and to ensure animal health, no more than a few percent of an animal’s diet can come from lipids.
Other products currently being investigated include chemicals and natural products like 3-NOP, seaweed, and even probiotics. While dietary modification for lipids and supplementation with feed additives show promise in feedlot and confined operation settings, none of the emerging solutions are applicable to grazing systems. Research areas of interest include developing breeding strategies for low methane producing animals, anti-methane vaccines, and novel delivery mechanisms for grazing animals.
Methane emissions from manure are largely dependent on whether the manure is exposed to air (methane producing microbes are not productive in oxygen rich environments). Grazing animals for instance generate very little manure methane, because manure is deposited over large areas and is exposed to open air. In confined operations like large dairies, manure is often flushed with water or scraped into a holding pond before it is applied to fields as fertilizer. These liquid manure lagoons quickly become anaerobic (without oxygen) and are an ideal environment for methane producing microbes.
Some enteric methane mitigation compounds could in theory reduce manure lagoon emissions, however the compounds would have to survive the digestive tract of the animal. It is also possible that some compounds could decrease enteric emissions but increase manure emissions. While this has not been demonstrated, prudent experimentalists include this in research studies. Growing efforts to reduce the methane from large manure lagoons include covering the lagoon and capturing the renewable biogas for use as transportation fuel, or electricity production, or processing the manure to separate the solids from the liquids and composting the solids to reduce emissions.