In mid-July, Burger King announced it would start adding lemongrass to its cows' diets to combat the methane emissions they produce during digestion.
During the complicated bovine digestive process, the grass they eat is broken down, fermented and released. With the millions of cows across the world raised for dairy and meat production, these burps have become a massive problem. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, methane from cow burps is responsible for 39 percent of greenhouse gas production related to the global livestock industry. And according to FoodTank, this accounts for 26 percent of the United States’ total methane emissions.
Burger King said its lemongrass feed program could reduce methane created by cows by about 33 percent. Scientists dove deeper into the fine print of the unpublished research, discovering that Burger King’s holy-grail lemongrass only reduces cow-produced methane emissions by about 3 percent. Burger King hasn’t responded to that criticism. Still, it is promising that the huge casual restaurant company is at least somewhat caving to the pressure from investors and consumers to address this issue, opening the door for other more efficient feed additives.
Methane from cow burps is responsible for 39 percent of greenhouse gas production in the global livestock industry.
Researchers and startup companies have recognized the enormous opportunity associated with addressing the cow methane issue by changing their diet and are working on natural feed additives to reduce methane emissions from cows. Here are five companies racing to offer options for farmers. Each offer natural additives. Synthetic additives are on the market for methane reduction, but they cannot be used by organic farmers.
1. Blue Ocean Barns
Blue Ocean Barns is one of two companies on this list working with Asparagopsis taxiformis, a red seaweed. Blue Ocean Barns’ trials at the University of California, Davis and other peer-reviewed studies on the seaweed have shown just a small sprinkling of the additive to the cow’s diet can reduce methane emissions from 50 to 90 percent.
"We’ve met with over 50 ranchers, dairy producers, processors and food companies," said Joan Salwen, founder of Blue Ocean Barns. "All of them really want to see the carbon footprint from livestock go down and not by 20 or 30 percent, but really dramatically. None of them could have envisioned the 80 percent reductions that were proving."
The seaweed prevents hydrogens from binding to carbon atoms in the gut, which creates methane. Instead, the cow releases carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas.
Blue Ocean Barns has been growing seaweed for two years, including on an oceanfront parcel in Hawaii with hundreds of acres available for cultivation. It plans to have products available by the end of 2021, focusing on California, where farmers are mandated by law to reduce methane emissions and where it already has connections through UC Davis. It has garnered investments from large dairy producers such as Mars, which awarded Blue Ocean Barns $200,000 to conduct a pilot with the company, and Land O'Lakes.
Symbrosia is also working on red algae. It, too, is only in the research phase and is completing its first trial on a sheep farm in New York. In Hawaii, Symbrosia is working on growing the algae, which can be quite finicky and difficult, and figuring out how to scale production. To get certified by the Food and Drug Administration, it will need enough product to run a full commercial trial. Symbrosia also has access to oceanfront property for growing.
"We're really familiar with the entire value chain and what this means to all the stakeholders," said Alexia Akbay, founder and CEO of Symbrosia. "We can bring the value the whole way through the supply chain. We really understand how to market the product and what we need to do on the technology to make it a marketable opportunity."
Alltech’s product, Yea-Sacc, is already commercially available. This product, a yeast culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, doesn’t directly reduce methane gas production. Instead, it increases the efficiency of cow milk production. Adding the yeast to the cow's diet creates a healthier gut microbiome, allowing the cow to turn grass into milk easier and quicker.
Alltech claims that Yea-Sacc provides higher sustained milk production per cow, therefore reducing the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product. However, this approach might just lead to more, highly efficient cows and methane production could remain stable.
Mootral, a Swiss agriculture company, has developed a garlic and citric acid natural feed supplement to reduce methane emissions from cows. The allicin in the garlic and the citrus extract in orange inhibits methane production in the rumen by as much as 23 percent, according to a UC Davis study.
While the seaweed additive might have better reduction rates, according to Mootral CEO Thomas Hafner, it is years away from marketability. What’s more, those startups will have to overcome scaling obstacles in growing the seaweed, he said.
"[Mootral has an advantage] simply because we can tap into an existing supply chain," Hafner said. "We can tap into the existing garlic industry. Have them grow our particular species that gives us a higher yield of active components. But there are 26 million tonnes of garlic being produced every year. If we were to serve 200 million cows, we were using 3 percent of that."
Mootral is exploring partnerships with brands all over the globe, including Brades Farm, which produces climate-conscious milk perfect for baristas.
5. Agolin Ruminant
Agolin has had a methane-reducing product on the market since 2008, however it markets the additive to farmers as a milk production booster. The product is a blend of essential oils from herbs such as cilantro that create a healthier, more productive and less methane-producing gut biome in the cow.
"It's adjusting the profile of the rumen microbiome," said Michael Roe, commercial director of Agolin. "It's suppressing some microbiomes, which allows others to proliferate. We're not interfering directly with chemical processes, I would say more sort of shifting the population profile within the rumen very slightly."
The next step for Agolin, and any methane-reducing additive product, is to get its methane claims verified by the FDA and be able to market the product as methane-reducing. No company has gotten this stamp from a regulator yet.
"For whatever company breaks through, it would pave the way for others," Roe said. "It's also a challenge for the FDA. They've never made an [methane-reducing] approval. How are they deciding to assess these products? The challenge is on both sides. The companies have to have a good enough dossier that can get through, and the FDA has to decide where the bar should be."
Updated 08/12/20 to clarify Blue Ocean Barns' and Symbrosia's seaweed growing infrastructure.