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The revolutionary additive to reduce cows' methane emission

October 28, 2021
topic:Climate action
tags:#cattle ranching, #methane, #global-warming, #Bovaer®
partner:The Beam
located:Brazil, Chile
by:Ellen Nemitz
Beef and dairy production contributes to climate change. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock's share of anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions is up to 14.5 percent, representing 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent gases per year - which takes into account the proportionate effects of all GHG.

Cows mostly emit methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) in their digestive process, a problem that gets considerably worse when we put it in context: around 1.5 billion cattle worldwide each emit between 70 and 120 kg of methane per year

Furthermore, cattle ranching demands large expanses of land, which is frequently associated with deforestation. Even though an increasing number of people have been switching their diets to a plant-based one, this is still not the mainstream. Nearly 72 million tons of beef and 860 million tons of milk are produced every year, according to a 2020 report by FAO. 

In order to reduce the impact of these foods, scientists around the world have been working on solutions. One of them is the new additive recently presented by the animal nutrition and health company DSM. Commercially called Bovaer®, the additive could potentially reduce cows' emissions by anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent, depending on the kind of livestock (for dairy or beef production) and a combination of factors, such as the quality of feeding. "For a dairy cow this equates to a saving of more than 1 ton CO2 per cow per year," calculated Mark van-Nieuwland, a Program Director at DSM. 

The product is a powdered combination of nitrate and a biobased alcohol. Adding a quarter of a teaspoon per cow per day to cattle feed, says the company, produces immediate (but reversible) results, without any damage or side effects - neither for animals nor for humans. "When cattle digest feed they produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide as by-products. Microorganisms in a cow’s stomach turn these gases into methane via an enzymatic pathway," van-Nieuwland explained. "Bovaer® suppresses the last enzymatic step of this pathway thereby preventing the production of methane." 

Other studies have also led to the development of additives to be included in cow's diet in order to reduce their methane emissions. What makes Bovaer® different, according to researchers who spoke to The Beam, is the greater potential of reducing emissions. "There is a class of additives used for over 40 years, that of ionophores, which has as one of its positive effects the reduction of methane emissions, but with more modest results than the Bovaer®, which recently received approval," explained Sérgio Raposo, an agronomist and researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), who did not take part in Bovaer®’s development process and has no ties to DSM. 

Another difference that makes Bovaer® stand out is that it does not offer the risk of intoxication in case of over administration and does not use antibiotics. "It is an additive that will greatly help to reduce our emissions related to the production of meat and milk, reducing the carbon footprint of these foods. At the same time, it improves animal performance, helping to enable cleaner and more efficient production," affirmed Raposo.

Brazil and Chile are first to approve Bovaer®

The first two countries to approve the use of Bovaer®, in September 2021, were Brazil and Chile. The authorisation was based on the results of Project Clean Cow, which has been gathering scientists and partners from 13 countries (including Brazil and Chile) for more than 10 years. Each experiment was carried out more than once, in several farms and universities, and was attested in more than 48 peer-reviewed studies published in independent scientific journals. 

Although other countries may soon join the Latin American pioneers, the two approvals are already promising due to those nations’ massive cattle herds. "Brazil has one of the largest bovine herds in the world, about 230 million heads, ranking second globally in terms of meat production and fourth position in dairy production. Chile, on the other hand, has a bovine herd of around 2.9 million heads," said Mauricio Adade, President for the Latin America division of DSM. 

Systematic changes needed for genuine sustainability

Despite all the potential benefits of Bovaer®, the product would add a cost to the production, so convincing farmers to embrace it could present an additional challenge before its large-scale implementation. DSM affirms that this is something they take into account in the company’s expansion plans. "We are an animal nutrition company and we fully understand the economic difficulties faced by producers, and we recognise that Bovaer® will need to adapt to these conditions," stated Adade.

The additive is not a silver bullet that can single handedly fight livestock-related GHG emissions, however. There are a series of practices that should be altered in order to establish a truly sustainable production process. According to several studies, the correct management of the pastures is essential to preserving soil and grass quality and enabling cows to gain weight more rapidly, avoiding deforestation and fires to clear new land for livestock. Science-based techniques can also help stock carbon in the ground

Providing the right combination of food is a strategy defended by Ricardo Andrade Reis, a professor at the Animal Science Department at São Paulo State University (UNESP), who took part in the studies to develop Bovaer®. He explains that what causes methane production is fiber. Its digestion produces hydrogen, which makes the digestive tract more acidic. To deal with that, microorganisms combine hydrogen with carbon to produce methane. Offering starch as food would tackle the problem, but also compete with human feeding. "So, what we do is to manage the grass to increase the proportion of leaves, offering more digestible nutrients and less fibers, preventing grass from producing the stems," he stated. 

Other products not consumed by humans can be added to this "low methane diet," such as sorghum, cassava zest, soy husk and peanut skin. 

Additionally, natural oils from cinnamon, lemon and clove, for example, contain tannin, which reduces nitrous oxide emission (while methane is 28 times worse for the climate than CO2, nitrous oxide is 298 times more potent for global warming). 

"It is a set of actions that we call sustainable intensification. We increase the efficiency of using the inputs, reducing the waste. We need to pursue the best use of natural resources to achieve both food security and environmental benefits," the researcher concluded.

This article is published as part of a content partnership between FairPlanet and The Beam

Image by Angelina Litvin

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2019-07-19 at 22.26.02
Ellen Nemitz
Content partners:
The Beam
Content partner
Brazil Chile
Embed from Getty Images
With one of the largest bovine herds in the world, about 230 million heads, Brazil is the second largest producer of meat globally and fourth largest producer of dairy.
© Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
A dairy cow fitted with a wearable methane reducing mask created by Zelp Ltd. Zelp is developing a wearable device for cows that may be able to reduce their methane emissions by up to 60 percent.
© Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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