Cutting Down on Cow Burps to Ease Climate Change

In a cream-colored metal barn two hours north of Wellington, New Zealand, a black-and-white dairy cow stands in what looks like an oversize fish tank. Through the transparent Plexiglas walls, she can see three other cows in adjacent identical cubicles munching their food in companionable silence. Tubes sprout from the tops of the boxes, exchanging fresh air for the stale stuff inside. The cows, their owners say, could help slow climate change.

Livestock has directly caused about one-quarter of Earth’s warming in the industrial age, and scientists from the U.S. departments of agriculture and energy say bigger, more resource-heavy cattle are accelerating the problem. Contrary to popular belief, cows contribute to global warming mostly through their burps, not their flatulence. So about a dozen scientists here at AgResearch Grasslands, a government-owned facility, are trying to develop a vaccine to stop those burps. “This is not a standard vaccine,” says Peter Janssen, the anti-burp program’s principal research scientist. “It’s proving to be an elusive little genie to get out of the bottle.”

The effort isn’t entirely altruistic. Grasslands is dedicated to boosting New Zealand’s dominant agriculture and biotech industries, and the country’s biggest company, Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd., a $14 billion dairy processor, has vowed to increase its milk exports without increasing carbon emissions. But 2017 is set to be the third-hottest year on record—the top two were 2016 and 2015—so the globe can use all the help it can get, business-minded or not. “It’s essential to reduce global livestock emissions in order to reduce climate change consistent with what countries signed up to under the Paris Agreement,” says Andy Reisinger, deputy director of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre.

Janssen.
Photographer: Jake Mein for Bloomberg Businessweek

Janssen and his team are trying to purge cow stomachs of methanogens, the microbes that convert hydrogen into methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It’s an unexpectedly delicate and difficult task, because cows rely on a host of other bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in their guts to digest the grasses they eat. Researchers have tried feeding them oregano, tea extracts, probiotics, antibiotics, seaweed (too toxic), coconut oil (too expensive), chloroform (too carcinogenic), and even leftover grains from beer brewing (which made cows poop more nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas).

So far no vaccine has progressed far enough to be given to the cows in the cubicles, where methane output can be measured. The vaccine must first be successfully tested in the lab and on sheep. Although the scientists have figured out how to produce the desired antibodies in the cows, the animals continue to merrily burp. Janssen’s team is looking for proteins they can use to concoct a stronger vaccine, one that will better prime the cows’ immune systems to attack methanogens. A single methanogen genome has 2,000 proteins, so they’ve narrowed their search to a handful of candidates, which they think could knock out the gassiest microbes.

A cow is led into the methane measurement center.
Photographer: Jake Mein for Bloomberg Businessweek

The hunt for a vaccine costs about $1.4 million a year, about two-thirds of which comes from the New Zealand government. Industry supplies the rest. The money is part of a $7.5 million pool for curbing farming gases meant to address New Zealand’s status as the world’s highest per capita methane emitter. Janssen says it may take five years or longer to create the right vaccine, but it will do much more to reduce bovine emissions than a treatment that Dutch company DSM is developing for bucket-fed cows. That’s because the vaccine will work just as well for grazers. “There aren’t too many ruminants in the world where the animals never get to eat grass,” he says, noting that even cows fattened with feed in a controlled environment typically start out in pastures.

DSM used computers to create a methane-blocking molecule called 3-nitrooxypropanol, or 3-NOP, that appears to cut burped methane by about a third when sprinkled on a cow’s food. The company, whose annual research and development budget is $500 million, is waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is likely to take at least two more years. “For developed countries, this is the most promising technology at this point,” says Alexander Hristov, a Penn State professor of dairy nutrition who’s tested 3-NOP for DSM. The New Zealanders are leading the vaccine hunt, he says, but they haven’t developed a proven product they can offer to farmers.

Dairy cows at Massey University, which supplies cows for AgResearch.
Photographer: Jake Mein for Bloomberg Businessweek

Janssen, a bespectacled man with the lanky limbs of a longtime mountain explorer, says his team is also working on substances similar to 3-NOP that could be given in pill form. A complicating factor: No one knows how low-methane a cow can go without hurting its health or productivity. Trials suggest cows that burp less seem to cope fine, but scientists want to make sure there are no unintended consequences, such as reduced milk quality or quantity. “We need to understand where that tipping point is,” Janssen says.

Humans are the final hurdle. Canadian scientists created low-polluting pigs almost a decade ago, but people wouldn’t buy the genetically modified pork. “Farmers will produce what the consumer demands,” says Tim McAllister, who’s conducting trials of 3-NOP and other methane-reduction techniques for the Canadian government at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre in Alberta. Soaring global demand for meat makes climate concerns pressing. North of Wellington, the cows seem content in their tanks, turning to watch as Janssen strides between their boxes. For now, their burps are packed with methane, but they may not have to be.

    BOTTOM LINE – Researchers are painstakingly hunting for compounds that can quell methane-packed cow burps but will still have to sell regulators and the public on the science.

    Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-29/cutting-down-on-cow-burps-to-ease-climate-change

    U.S. Growth at Above-Forecast 3% on Consumers and Businesses

    The U.S. economy expanded at a faster pace than forecast in the third quarter, indicating resilient demand from consumers and businesses even with the hit from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Commerce Department data showed Friday.

    Key Takeaways

    While GDP grew more than anticipated, analysts look to another key measure to assess the true health of the economy. Final sales to domestic purchasers, which strip out trade and inventories — the two most volatile components of the GDP calculation — climbed 1.8 percent, the slowest since early 2016, after rising 2.7 percent in prior quarter.

    The fallout from the hurricanes was mixed, probably depressing some figures while lifting others. The storms inflicted extensive damage on parts of Texas and Florida, though the effect is likely to be transitory as economic activity is expected to rebound amid rebuilding efforts.

    Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, added 1.6 percentage point to growth last quarter. That was driven by motor vehicles, as Americans replaced cars damaged by the storms, while services spending slowed to the weakest pace since 2013. Even so, a steady job market, contained inflation and low borrowing costs are expected to provide the wherewithal for households to sustain their spending.

    The first reading of GDP, the value of all goods and services produced, also showed continued strength in business investment, indicating growth is broadening out to more sources beyond household consumption. Companies are upbeat about the outlook and overseas markets are improving, which may help boost exports and contain the trade deficit.

    At the same time, the details of business investment showed a mixed picture. The decline in investment in structures probably reflects the hit from Hurricane Harvey, especially on oil and gas drilling.

    Residential investment remained a weak spot. Builders are up against a shortage of qualified labor and ready-to-build lots at the same time sales are being held back by a shortage of available properties that’s driving up prices.

    Price data in the GDP report showed inflation picked up while still lagging behind the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent goal. Excluding food and energy, the Fed’s preferred price index — which is tied to personal spending — rose at a 1.3 percent annualized rate last quarter, following a 0.9 percent gain.

    Fed policy makers can point to evidence that growth is steady enough to allow them to keep raising interest rates, with investors expecting a quarter-point increase in December.

    While the economy is probably on solid footing in the ninth year of this expansion, the central bank and many economists expect GDP growth to slow beyond 2018, moving closer to 2 percent rather than the sustained 3 percent pace that the Trump administration says will happen if its tax plan is enacted.

    Economist Views

    “It’s hard to confidently discern the hurricane effects in this report, but the economy seems to be on pretty solid ground,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. “The details are reasonably solid. Consumers stepped down a little from the second quarter but their spending still expanded at a decent pace.”

    The gain in equipment investment shows “businesses may be getting a little more confident about the expansion, both here in the U.S. and abroad,” he said. Overall, the report “probably gives a little more confidence to the Fed to hike rates before year-end, but I don’t think it’s a game-changer.”

    Other Details

    • Nonresidential investment — which includes spending on equipment, structures and intellectual property — increased 3.9 percent and added 0.49 percentage point to growth
    • Equipment investment jumped 8.6 percent for a fourth quarter of growth, longest streak since 2014
    • Residential investment fell at a 6 percent rate after 7.3 percent drop, worst two-quarter performance since 2010
    • Net exports added 0.41 percentage point to growth as exports rose, imports fell; inventories added 0.73 point, most since 2016
    • Government spending fell at a 0.1 percent rate; the figures reflected 1.1 percent in federal spending, driven by defense, while state and local outlays dropped 0.9 percent
    • After-tax incomes adjusted for inflation increased at a 0.6 percent annual pace, down from the previous quarter’s 3.3 percent; saving rate fell to 3.4 percent from 3.8 percent
    • GDP report is the first of three estimates for the quarter; the other two are due in November and December as more data become available

      Highlights of Third-Quarter GDP (First Estimate)

      • Gross domestic product grew at a 3% annualized rate (est. 2.6%) following a 3.1% gain in 2Q, best back-to-back quarters since 2014
      • Consumer spending, biggest part of the economy, grew 2.4% (est. 2.1%) after 3.3% in 2Q
      • Business fixed investment rose 1.5%, adding 0.25 ppt to growth; spending on nonresidential structures fell, equipment and intellectual property gained, residential dropped
      • Trade, inventories added a combined 1.14 ppt to growth
      • Commerce Dept. said it can’t estimate hurricanes’ impact on GDP; disaster losses on fixed assets, private and public, totaled about $131.4b

      Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-27/u-s-growth-at-above-forecast-3-on-consumer-business-spending