Breaking down the livestock methane concerns
Around 15% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production. In Australia, the contribution of methane emissions from ruminant livestock is nearly 10% of total greenhouse emissions.
There’s not that much methane in the atmosphere—about 1,800 parts per billion, which is about as much as two cups of water inside a swimming pool. While methane is about 200 times less concentrated in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2), the environmental impact of methane emissions becomes a hot topic in the global climate change debate because adding more methane to the atmosphere can have a big impact on how much, and how quickly, the planet warms.
Methane is very different from CO2, which is the most abundant greenhouse gas. Methane emissions from livestock break down in the atmosphere within 12 years, whereas CO2 from burning fossil fuels continues to build up over centuries.
The biogenic carbon cycle means that sheep and cattle production in Australia at current levels will not contribute to the global temperature rise. With stable livestock numbers, the amount of methane produced balances the methane that breaks down from the atmosphere as it is recycled into carbon by plants and soil.
The challenge for our industries is maintaining the course to be carbon neutral by 2030 while accommodating a larger herd and flock in a sustainable way as we recover from prolonged drought conditions and feed a hungrier world. Through Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), millions of dollars in producer levies are invested every year on developing solutions that will reduce methane emissions, including genetics, grazing management, biogenic interventions, and of course feed additives like Asparagopsis and 3-NOP which have become very popular in the media lately.
Asparagopsis and 3-NOP supplements have potential for cost-effective practical application and can reduce methane emissions by 90% and 40+%, respectively. Speculatively, some suggest these novel feed additives could cost more than $2 per head per day. Companies working to commercialise these products claim it will be considerably cheaper than that, in the vicinity of $0.50 to $1 per head per day depending on volume.
The success of feed additives will depend on whether they can be adopted at scale, whether the productivity gains outweigh the additional input costs, and whether there are any side effects on animal health or product quality through long term exposure.
It is good to see government starting to invest alongside industry to meet the methane challenge. Last month the Federal Government announced $5 million in grants to support research and development for low-emissions feed supplements, including one PIRSA will undertake at Turretfield into the delivery of methane reducing additives to sheep via trough water.
Following the Federal Government signing on to the Global Methane Pledge ahead of COP27, there is now rightfully a firm expectation from industry that governments will start to invest a lot more in fast-tracking commercialisation of methane reducing feed additives, incentives for the adoption of novel feed additives, helping producers commence emissions accounting for their businesses and developing emissions reduction fund methodologies.
With the right policy settings and ongoing research investment, the livestock industries can be at the forefront of the climate solution.
By Travis Tobin