Covering Ag since 1981. The faces, places, markets and issues of dairy and livestock production. Hard-hitting topics, market updates and inspirational stories from the notebook of a veteran ag journalist. Contributing reporter for Farmshine since 1987; Editor of former Livestock Reporter 1981-1998; Before that I milked cows. @Agmoos on Twitter, @AgmoosInsight on FB #MilkMarketMoos
Study says dairy should aim for climate neutrality, not net-zero carbon. Dr. Frank Mitloehner explains meaningful metric, achievable goal post during webinar
Sherry Bunting, previously published in Farmshine
BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Net-zero carbon, net-zero GHG, net-zero GHG footprint, carbon neutrality, GHG neutrality… These terms are being used to describe the dairy checkoff’s 2050 commitments via DMI’s Net Zero Initiative.
But do they consider the warming impact of methane from dairy cows over time?
Bottomline, the so-called “Net-Zero Initiative” of DMI is a set up to be always chasing the cow’s biology without measuring her methane as the flow gas it really is — without considering the short-lived nature of methane and the biogenic cycle cattle are a part of.
If net-zero carbon is the goal, and if methane is measured on carbon dioxide equivalency without considering its short-lived cycle, then dairy farmers could find themselves in the position of unnecessarily and continually chasing the natural biology of their cows without a meaningful and accurate metric and without an achievable goal post that satisfies what all industries around the world are really being asked to do, and that is to limit additional warming.
A new study by foremost animal scientists and air quality specialists Dr. Frank Mitloehner and Dr. Sara Place is calling for the U.S. dairy industry to aim for climate neutrality (net-zero warming) rather than net-zero carbon or net-zero GHG.
The peer-reviewed study from the University of California-Davis CLEAR Center and Elanco Animal Health was published recently in the Journal of Dairy Science. It outlines a path for the U.S. dairy industry to reach climate neutrality by 2041 with small methane reductions every year, and even sooner with more aggressive reductions.
Dr. Mitloehner brought dairy farmers up to date and took questions during the American Dairy Coalition’s annual meeting by webinar in December.
One important take-home message was for dairy producers to understand that how methane’s global warming potential is quantified (whether GWP100 or GWP*) “has a profound impact on the predicted warming of your industry. The only way you can become climate neutral is by using a metric fit for purpose, one that predicts the warming, and that is GWP*,” said Mitloehner.
He explained how methane is an important and powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), but it is different from other gases because it is the only one that undergoes atmospheric removal in a chemical process that takes about a decade. This does not occur for carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide, which are stock gases that remain in earth’s atmosphere for 1000 and 100 years, respectively.
“Methane is the most important gas for agriculture, so its removal must be included in the calculation also,” he confirmed, noting that GWP* does that. “Methane is fast and furious. It has a good punch that is 28 times more trapping of heat from the sun (vs. carbon dioxide), but it is also fast. It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for long.”
In a slide showing all global methane sources and sinks, Mitloehner noted that nearly 560 terragrams of methane are produced worldwide annually, and at the same time 550 are destroyed by this natural atmospheric process.
In terms of atmospheric growth, “the net is then 10. This is still a number we want to reduce, but it is not 560,” he said.
As the DMI Innovation Center’s Sustainability goals, Net Zero Initiative and FARM program are on the cusp of calculating these things at the farm level, both the measurement and the goal matter.
The GWP100 metric has been around since the 1990s, but it describes stock gases, whereas methane is a flow gas.
Using GWP100 with a net-zero carbon commitment is not only unnecessary, it’s problematic.
“It means the belches from your cows are (being calculated) in addition to what they belched last year, and the year before that, and so forth 10 years from now,” said Mitloehner. “In reality, constant herds are a constant source of methane that generates a constant warming, not a new warming. That’s what the Paris Treaty asks all sectors to do – to limit additional warming.”
Aiming for climate neutrality or net-zero warming instead of net-zero carbon would put the focus where it needs to be — on the warming impact of the emitted methane over time. This is important because methane makes up 62% of the estimated total GHG for dairy, according to the CLEAR Center study.
“If we use GWP100 to describe a relatively constant source, to characterize that methane, then we are overblowing its impact by a factor of 3 to 4, and we are overlooking the ability for the U.S. dairy industry to reduce warming when we reduce methane,” said Mitloehner, citing page 173 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021 Assessment Report 6.
The metric GWP-star (GWP*) is also mentioned on this page of the IPCC report. GWP* was developed by the University of Oxford. It is based on GWP100, but it looks at how methane warms the planet over time. It characterizes methane as the flow gas that it is and calculates it based on CO2 warming equivalents (CO2we), not as accumulating CO2 stock equivalents (CO2e).
A white paper published with the peer-reviewed CLEAR Center study explains it this way:
“Net zero carbon refers to a state where carbon is removed from the atmosphere (through carbon sinks or other offsets) at a rate equal to carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. This balance between carbon emission and removal creates a ‘net-zero’ carbon output. Climate neutrality, on the other hand, focuses on temperature impacts from emission sources, referring to the point in which no additional warming is added to the atmosphere.”
The paper goes on to explain how “climate neutrality is analogous to net-zero carbon when dealing with long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, but short-lived pollutants like methane do not need to reach net-zero carbon to be climate-neutral.”
“Is it new and additional carbon being added to the atmosphere? Do constant herds add new warming? No, they do not,” said Mitloehner.
“Belched out methane is the number one source in agriculture, but again, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for 1000 or even 100 years like carbon dioxide and other GHG,” he explained while also noting the pathway of the carbon in this methane is already present in the atmosphere, is captured by plants, then consumed by cows. Some of this consumed carbon (energy) is converted to carbohydrate and some of it is emitted in the methane by the cow in a continuous cycle.
Unlike fossil fuel emissions, this is not ancient carbon brought out of the ground and into the atmosphere as a one-way-street, he explained: “Do not fall for the people who are comparing cars to cows. The University of Oxford says this is a mischaracterization, and I agree.”
What is exciting, “is if we reduce methane, we can come to a point where we produce negative warming or a cooling effect. That’s what my work is about (Fig. 4). If we do a couple of things to reach no new warming, and if we then get aggressive to go further, we can sell credits as offsets,” said Mitloehner, referencing the implications, limitations and conclusions of the CLEAR Center study.
As innovations related to managing cattle diets are being developed, the good news is emerging tools show the promise of steering more of that carbon, that energy, toward milk yield and components and less of it to methane that is belched back into the cycle.
In contrast, a net-zero carbon or net-zero GHG goal that measures methane as a stock gas (GWP100) and does not accurately describe its warming impact and flow-gas status in the way GWP-star (GWP*) does, would leave dairy farmers needlessly and continually chasing what under the GWP100 scenario are accumulated and continuing belches from their cows.
If the industry continues to chart net zero carbon, will dairy farms be forever chasing their belching cows with tech investments and offsets?
“In my opinion, you will never reach net zero carbon. Your cows will always produce methane no matter how aggressive you are. You will over promise and leave stakeholders disappointed. We are dealing with a biological system, the microbial fermentation in the rumen. It is not feasible and I have advised the industry in the past against it, but that is the direction it goes – in general,” said Mitloehner.
As for unintended consequences on the path to ‘net zero,’ Dr. Mitloehner was clear to say: “What matters is climate neutrality. If you tell the world you want to be climate neutral with no new warming and achieve it through annual reductions of 0.3 to 0.5%, you will indeed be climate neutral in less than 20 years. At a 1% per year reduction in methane, you will accelerate that timeline. But you will never achieve it with GWP100. It’s not possible and not necessary to go that way of treating methane as if it were a stock gas. It doesn’t account for the reduction.”
A piece of good news, he said, is that GWP-star (GPW*) can be used parallel to GWP100. The maitrix is a more scientific predictor of what you (dairy) has to do to bend that curve and how strongly.
“The excel spreadsheet calculator in the white paper helps you identify when in the future as a creamery or a statewide association reach the point that you are no longer creating additional warming, and that should be the goal,” Mitloehner explains.
Net zero carbon or net zero GHG is a setup to always be chasing the cow’s biology without acknowledging her gas is a flow gas, not a stock gas. It does not accumulate. Some will say “you can use offsets” for the cow’s biology. But why? They are not necessary as offsets and could be viewed as solutions if the dairy industry gets its math right. (We’ve seen this movie before)
Dairy farmers are being used without regard. Their future ability to operate is right now being negotiated, and they are paying those negotiators through their 15-cents-per-hundredweight mandatory checkoff with no idea how the negotiations will ultimately affect their businesses and way of life.
Inflated baselines and an inflated methane CO2 equivalent assigned to cows is setting the stage for a head-on collision, a train wreck on the misaligned track laid by DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
In fact, the Net Zero Initiative has been designed to help everyone but the dairy farmer. It sets up a methane money game for carbon traders at the expense of those dairy farms that have long been environmentally conscious with no-till, cover crops, grazing, and other practices already on their farms.
Small and mid-sized dairy farms that are already at or near carbon-neutral could show smaller reductions for the industry to harvest.
Conversely, the largest dairies installing the newest biogas systems are realizing even this route could become a dead-end because the credits are signed over and sold for big bucks, a few bucks get kicked back to the dairy, but the methane capture becomes the property of other industries outside of the dairy supply chain.
If the industry does not act now to stop the NZI train for a period of re-examination, adjustment and correction, then the current trajectory may actually move food companies clamoring for reductions ever closer to alternatives and analogs that boast their climate claims solely on the fact that they are produced without cows.
This is a big money game that is operating off the backs of our cows, and the checkoff has been at best complicit as a driver.
RNG (renewable natural gas) operators are signing up large (3000+ cows) dairies left and right for digesters and covered lagoons to capture methane piped to clustered scrubbing facilities to be turned into renewable fuel for vehicles or electricity generation. Meanwhile dairy protein analogs are being created without cows by ‘precision fermentation’ startups partnering with the largest global dairy companies.
NZI is the proclaimed vehicle for negotiating the terms for U.S. Dairy to continue, terms based on showing carbon reductions that many family farms may find difficult to meet — especially if the farm is already at or close to carbon neutral.
As DMI’s sustainability negotiators data-collect all previous reductions into farm-by-farm comprehensive baseline estimates, where will those farms find new reductions?
According to DMI staff, over 2000 dairy farms have already gone through their environmental stewardship review via the FARM program to establish their “comprehensive estimates.”
The six organizations, four of them filing IRS 990s under the national dairy checkoff, that launched NZI are: Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and Newtrient, along with the other two organizations being National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
They have collectively bought-into the global definition that inflates the CO2 equivalent used for methane, effectively committing the cow to perpetual GHG purgatory.
Because the NZI structure is based on continually showing GHG reductions, no farm is insulated with a get-out-of-jail-free-key — not even the largest farms with the most advanced biogas systems.
Why haven’t checkoff funds been used to defend the cow – to get the numbers right, to get the current practices farmers have invested in counted toward reductions not baselines, and to get the methane CO2 equivalent correct — instead of giving in to this notion that feels an awful lot like ‘cows are bad and we are committed to making them better?’
Perhaps it was ignored or embraced because this inflated methane CO2 equivalent gives the suite of tech tools being assembled by DMI’s Newtrient a bigger runway to show reductions — a money maker for the RNG biogas companies and others that will in many cases end up owning the carbon credits after paying the farmer a nominal fee.
Carbon trading rose 164% last year to $851 billion, according to a Reuters January 2022 report. A big chunk of this is coming from the methane capture and fossil fuel replacement of RNG biogas projects, mostly in California but popping up elsewhere at a rapid rate and mostly traded on the California exchange.
Farmers are getting some money for these projects, but they don’t own the carbon credits once they are sold or signed over. When they are sold outside of the dairy supply chain, this reduction becomes someone else’s property, so it is no longer part of the dairy farm’s footprint nor the footprint of their milk buyer.
Likewise, this inflated methane equivalent — along with the emphasis on reductions, not neutrality — has some processors wondering if they’ll be able to come up with the Scope 3 reductions they need in ESG scoring.
They are facing upstream pressure from retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies as well as asset managers to show reductions, and they have counted on big numbers from their Scope 3 suppliers, the dairy farms.
The problem for dairy processors and dairy farmers comes down to the central definitions of methane equivalent and carbon asset ownership — the rights of farmers to own their past, present and future reductions, whether or not they’ve signed them over as offsets to a milk buyer or a project investor and whether or not they’ve sold the resulting credits on a carbon exchange, and whether or not they’ve installed new practices that are now part of a baseline but represent a new investment every year as they operate their businesses.
Back in June, the American Dairy Coalition added this concern to their list of federal milk pricing priorities because of the impact this climate and carbon tracking will have on milk buying and selling relationships and contracts — and the lack of clarity or fairness in this deal for essential food producers at the origination point that is closest to nature, the farm.
ADC worded their “carbon asset ownership” priority this way: “No matter where a dairy farm’s milk is processed, that farm should be able to retain 100% ownership at all times of its earned and achieved carbon assets, even if this information is shared with milk buyers to describe the resulting products that are made from the milk.”
For its part, IDFA took a swing last Friday, going one step farther to recommend global accounting methods that would allow the dairy supply chain (farmers and processors) to retain carbon credits even if they are sold on a carbon exchange or signed over to an asset company that invested in an on-farm technology.
IDFA executives penned the Sept. 9 opinion piece in Agri-Pulse laying out the concerns of their members who are starting to realize the future consequences of the rapid and inflated monetization of methane — and the race to sell carbon credits — leaving dairy processors unable to get those credits they were counting on from the farms that supply them with milk, while at the same time being stuck facing the cow’s inflated methane CO2 equivalent in their downstream Scope 3 even while they try to get reductions in their own controlled areas of Scopes 1 and 2.
When dairy farms no longer own their reduction or cannot show a large reduction because they are already virtually neutral, processors become concerned about how they will gain the Scope 3 reductions that are part of the ESG scoring the large retailers and global food companies are pushing.
All of this has come down through the non-governmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), investment and asset management sector via the World Economic Forum (WEF), the global corporate structures through the Sustainability Roundtable and through government entities via the United Nations Agenda 2030. DMI has been at those tables for at least 14 years.
“It is becoming clearer every day that the global accounting standards underpinning GHG measurement and reporting are biased against the very people making the (GHG) reductions,” the IDFA executives wrote in their opinion.
In other words, while some farmers are beginning to profit from GHG-reducing practices that are turned into offsets and traded on the carbon markets, the system is tilted against them because it leaves them without the offsets they traded and leaves them in a position of having to continually reduce in order to secure a position in the value chain.
IDFA points out that under the current rules, once the offset is sold outside of the value chain as a carbon credit – it is gone. The current GHG accounting system says only the buyer of that reduction can claim ownership.
Those farms can no longer claim their own reduction, and it means the company buying milk or other commodities from a producer cannot integrate the reduction into the description of their final product.
This weakens U.S. Dairy, the IDFA opinion states, and it makes dairy farmers less competitive sources of pledge-meeting carbon reductions for retailers and manufacturers – setting real dairy up for fake dairy dilution with the inclusion of whey proteins and other pieces of milk that are being produced in fermentation vats by genetically modified yeast, fungi and bacteria, as well as other analogs.
A bigger problem not mentioned in the IDFA opinion may be the inflated baselines that leave farms that have implemented best practices years ago positioned to show smaller reductions.
While the American Farm Bureau earlier this year lobbied against proposed SEC accounting intrusions for quantifying ESG scoring, it has been silent on the issue of carbon asset ownership for food producers. AFBF has also said little about the recently signed climate bill (Inflation Reduction Act).
National Milk Producers Federation, on the other hand, as reported last week, sang its praises for being right in line with where the industry’s Net Zero Initiative is going.
DMI voices its pride to have been leading the way, positioning its Innovation Center as founded by dairy farmers. They have conceded that dairy farms impact the environment and launched NZI as a collective pledge to reduce that impact.
In other words, DMI submitted to the idea that cows impact the environment, but never fear, through NZI, the Innovation Center and Newtrient, farmers will make them better, and turn them into a climate solution.
This is a fool’s errand given the inflated methane equivalent and the movement of carbon reductions to entities outside of the dairy supply chain such as paper mills, bitcoin miners, and the fossil fuel industry.
Did dairy farmers have a say in any of this? Not really. They were kept in the dark as this was developed over the past decade or more, and the boards representing them on the six organizations that launched NZI (four of them under the checkoff umbrella) have been duped.
Farmers are largely unaware of the NZI train, and their silence as it runs down the track becomes a further signal to the industry and to the government that they approve of the track they are on.
As the industry sits at this crossing, the Net Zero train full of dairy farmer passengers is barreling high speed down the track DMI has laid.
This train must be stopped because the future-bound track needs to be re-examined, adjusted and re-aligned so that the passengers are not ejected by the train wreck – the accelerated consolidator — that lies ahead.
Fundamentals must be vigorously revisited. Every passenger on that train, every dairy farm, must be recognized as an essential food producer, get credit for their prior investment in current practices, and be able to retain ownership of their carbon assets as part of their farm’s footprint — even if these assets have been provided, sold or signed over as offsets to milk buyers or project investors or traders on an exchange.
Furthermore, this train – built with farmer dollars – should protect the so-called founding farmers from being denied a market based on the size of their GHG reductions. If a carbon neutral farm can’t show reductions to its milk buyer, will that buyer look for other downstream vendors who can fulfill their Scope 3 reduction needs?
Will those vendors be other farms with larger perceived GHG reductions or will they be alternative analogs created without cows?
Nestle announced this week it is partnering with Perfect Day toward that end. In fact, the proliferation of plant-based, cell cultured, DNA-altered microbe excrement analogs for dairy protein and other elements are entering the market on big GHG reduction claims based on being made without the cow and the inflated methane CO2 equivalent she has been assigned!
The current standard for methane CO2 equivalency is inflated by orders of magnitude. Dr. Frank Mitloehner has addressed this repeatedly and other researchers back his view with efforts to change it.
Remember, DMI and company have ignored or embraced this definition. At the same time, the Innovation Center’s data collection of progressive accomplishments are included in the baselines from which new reductions (opportunities) must be found.
These two trains run in opposite directions for a future head-on collision on a mis-aligned track.
The bigger the perceived GHG problem, the bigger the reduction through technology, and the bigger the monetization of that reduction outside of the dairy supply chain. At the same time, this creates an even bigger problem for farms that are unable to participate in biogas projects, farms that don’t fit the Innovation Center’s 3500-cow-dairy-as-solution template, farms that may be carbon neutral or close to it already.
DMI and company have played fast and loose with the truth.
Farmshine readers will recall the glaring error reported more than a year ago in the white paper written by WWF for DMI. It showcased these biogas projects and the 3500-cow dairy template it proclaimed could be Net Zero in five years, not 30.
That paper inflated U.S. Dairy’s total GHG footprint by an order of magnitude! A Pennsylvania dairy farmer brought the error to Farmshine’s attention. In turn, the magnitude of the error was confirmed by Dr. Mitloehner who then contacted DMI. A corrected copy of the white paper magically replaced all internet files with no discussion from DMI or WWF. That number was changed, but all of the assumptions in the paper were left as-is.
Put simply: DMI does not appear to be concerned about inflating the size of dairy’s perceived GHG problem. The bigger the perceived problem, the bigger the reduction that can be monetized, but that is now happening outside of the dairy supply chain.
‘Climate neutrality, not net zero carbon, should be dairy’s goal.’
By Sherry Bunting
‘Net zero’ seems like a simple term, but it’s loaded, according to Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist with the Department of Animal Science at University of California-Davis.
He firmly believes dairy can be a climate solution, but the first step is to accurately define dairy’s contribution to the climate problem. Setting the record straight is his prime focus, and he also researches ways dairy, like every industry, “can do our bit to improve.”
Presenting on what ‘net zero’ really means for dairies, Mitloehner answered questions during the American Dairy Coalition (ADC) annual business meeting in December, attended by over 150 producers from across the country via webinar.
Based in Wisconsin, ADC is a national producer-driven voice with a regionally diverse board. President Walt Moore, a Chester County, Pennsylvania dairy producer, welcomed virtual meeting attendees, and CEO Laurie Fischer shared a federal dairy policy update.
She said the ADC board is nimble, moves quickly, and wants to hear from fellow dairy farmers. She encouraged membership to make ADC stronger and shared about the organization’s federal policy focus in 2021 — from pandemic disruptions and assistance, Federal Order pricing, depooling and negative PPDs to real dairy label integrity, whole milk choice in schools, and farmers’ questions and concerns about dairy ‘net-zero’ actions.
“Too often, farmers think they may not understand something, so they don’t speak up,” said Fischer. “But we get calls and so much great advice from our farmers. We know you get it, you know it, because it is happening to you.”
From this farmer input, the net-zero topic became the ADC annual meeting focus.
“We are rethinking methane, and this is influencing and shaping the discussion,” Dr. Mitloehner reported. He urged producers to use the information at the CLEAR Center at https://clear.ucdavis.edu/ and to do better networking, to have a better presence on social media.
This is necessary because the activists are well-connected, and methane is the angle they use in their quest to end animal agriculture. He said Twitter is a platform where many of these discussions are happening. His handle there is @GHGGuru and the Center is @UCDavisCLEAR.
“This is something I have told the dairy industry. They say ‘net-zero carbon’, but they shouldn’t say that because it is not possible, and it is not needed. We need to be saying ‘net-zero warming’. That’s the goal. Then, every time you reduce methane, you instantaneously have an impact that is inducing a cooling effect,” said Mitloehner.
‘Climate neutrality’ is the more accurate term he uses to describe the pathways for U.S. dairy and beef. But it requires getting accurate information into policy in a fact-based way.
It requires arming people with the knowledge that the constant and efficient U.S. dairy and livestock herds produce no new methane, that they are climate-neutral because not only is methane continuously destroyed in the atmosphere at a rate roughly equal to what is continuously emitted by cow burps and manure, that process involves a biogenic carbon cycle in which the cow is a key part.
One of the issues is how methane from cattle is measured, he said. Current policy uses a measurement from 30 years ago that fails to acknowledge the carbon cycle and ‘sinks’ alongside the ‘emissions.’
Mitloehner said accurate information is beginning to change the narrative. This is critical because methane is the GHG of concern for dairy, and the narrative about it has been incomplete and inaccurate.
As a more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, methane becomes the ‘easy’ target to achieve the warming limits in the Paris Accord. Methane was the focal point of ‘additional warming limits’ during the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November.
Putting together the inaccurate narrative alongside international agreements to specifically reduce methane, it becomes obvious why cattle are in the crosshairs. Producers are already in the middle of this in California as methane regulation and carbon credit systems began there several years ago.
As the narrative is beginning to change, Mitloehner sees opportunities. He described the current California ‘goldrush’ of renewable natural gas (RNG) projects where large herds both in and out of state cover lagoons to capture and convert biogas into RNG. The state’s investments and renewable fuel standard provide a 10-year guarantee with the RNG companies typically owning the offset credits that can be traded on the California exchange from anywhere.
Getting the numbers right is mission-critical
“We are far and away an outlier because of our efficiency in the U.S with all livestock and feed representing 4% of the GHG total for the U.S,” Mitloehner confirmed. “Dairy, alone, is less than 2% of the U.S. total.”
This is much smaller than the 14.5% figure that is thrown about recklessly. That is a global number that includes non-productive cattle in India as well as the increasing herds in less efficient developing countries. This number also lumps in other things, such as deforestation.
He said the true global percentage of emissions for livestock and manure is 5.8%. Unfortunately, activists and media tend to use the inflated global figure and conflate it with these other things to inaccurately describe the climate impact of U.S. dairy and livestock herds as 14.5%.
The efficiency of U.S. production and the nutrient density of animal foods must be part of the food and climate policy equation.
Methane is not GHG on steroids
“Without greenhouse gases, life on earth would not be possible because it would be too cold here,” said Mitloehner. “We need GHG, but human activity puts too much into the atmosphere, and the toll is large concentrations.”
The way all GHGs are measured has to do with their intensity as determined 30 years ago when scientists wanted one global warming potential (GWP) unit to compare cows to cars to cement production and so forth. They came up with GWP100, which converts methane to CO2 equivalents based on its warming potential.
Methane traps 28 times more heat than CO2, but it is short-lived, Mitloehner explained.
“Looking just at the warming potential, you get this idea that methane is GHG on steroids and that we need to get rid of all of it and all of its sources,” he said.
But is this the end of the methane story? No.
Sinks and cycles must count
Mitloehner described how ‘methane budgets’ look at sources and their emissions but ignore the carbon sinks that go alongside and ignore the chemical reactions that result in atmospheric removal of methane as well.
“Plants need sunlight, water, and a source of carbon. That carbon they need comes from the atmosphere to produce oxygen and carbohydrates,” he said, explaining how cows eat the carbohydrates and convert them to nutrient dense milk and beef. In that process, the rumen produces methane.
“Is this new and additional carbon added to the atmosphere? No it is not. It is recycled carbon,” he said.
“Say you work off the farm. You drive and burn fuel, adding new CO2 in addition to the stock in the atmosphere the day before. Stock gases accumulate because they stay in the environment. Currently, agencies treat methane as if it behaves the same way. But methane is a flow gas, not a stock gas. It is not cumulative,” said Mitloehner.
If the same farm has 1000 cows belching today and 1000 belching 10 years ago, those 1000 cows are not belching new methane because in 10 years it is gone from the atmosphere. It is cyclical.
“The take-home message is the carbon that our constant livestock herds produce is not new carbon in the atmosphere. It is a constant source because similarly to it being produced, it is also destroyed. The destruction part is not finding its way into the public policy system… but it will in the future,” he predicts.
Methane drives Paris Accord and COP26
Methane targets are driving intergovernmental agreements wanting to limit the “additional warming impact” of nations and industries.
Currently, cattle are viewed as global-warmers because they constantly emit methane. However, as Mitloehner drilled numerous times, this is not new methane, it is not additive, it is not cumulative. It is recycled carbon.
“If you have constant livestock herds, like in the U.S., then you are not causing new additional warming,” said Mitloehner.
Burning fossil fuels is much different.
“Fossilized carbon accumulated underground. Over 70 years, we have extracted half of it and burned it, so where is it now? In the atmosphere. We added new and additional CO2 that is not a short-lived gas. It is a one-way street from the ground into the air,” he explained.
The problem for dairy and beef producers is their cattle are being depicted as though their emissions are additive, cumulative, like fossil fuels, which is not true, he said.
Signs the narrative is changing
One promising sign that the message is getting through has come from Oxford researchers acknowledging the constant cattle herds in the U.S. and UK are not adding new warming.
They acknowledge the GWP100 “grossly overestimates” the warming impact of cattle and are working on a new measurement that recognizes constant cattle herds are not adding new warming, said Mitloehner.
Another promising sign is that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a statement recently acknowledging that the current GWP100 overblows the warming impact of cattle by a factor of four. This new information is not in current policy, but it is making its way there.
Tale of two bathtubs
Mitloehner believes it is important to visualize climate neutrality. He described two bathtubs. One has a CO2 faucet with no drain, the other a methane faucet with a drain. Open the faucets, and even at a slow and steady rate, the CO2 bathtub continues to rise, while the methane bathtub drains as it fills to remain at a constant level.
He also explained that over the past 200 years the U.S. hasn’t seen any real change in that methane bathtub because prior to settlement in America, 100 million ruminants — buffalo and other wild herds — roamed. Today, there are around 100 million large ruminants in the U.S. dairy and beef industries.
What has changed is the U.S. does have more liquid manure lagoon storage that is producing more methane than solid manure storage. “But we know of ways to further reduce that,” he said.
Mitloehner pointed out how the current GWP100 poorly estimates the warming impact three example scenarios. If, over 30 years, methane is increased 35% from a source, or reduced 10%, or reduced 35%, the GWP100 would show significant continuous addition of cow-sourced methane in CO2 equivalents for all three scenarios because the destruction of the methane – the drain that operates with the faucet – is ignored.
The proper way to look at this, if the methane increased a lot, is that it would add a lot. But if it is balanced, then there is no new or additional warming. And, in that third scenario, he said, “where we pull a lot from the atmosphere when we reduce methane, it has the same impact as growing a forest.”
Bottom line, said Mitloehner, “We can be a solution and take it to the market and get paid for that,” but current policy does not yet reflect the neutral position of the constant and efficient U.S. herd.
Bullish about the future
‘Net zero’ is a term that is not yet clearly defined, said Dr. Frank Mitloehner several times during the American Dairy Coalition annual meeting by webinar in December. He sees the real goal as “climate neutrality,” to communicate the way constant U.S. dairy herds contribute “no additional warming,” in other words “net zero warming.”
The climate neutrality of U.S. cattle must be part of public policy, he said. Only then will dairies truly be on a path to marketing their reductions as ‘cooling offsets.’
Mitloehner, a University of California animal scientist and GHG expert is bullish about the future of “turning this methane liability into an asset, so if we manage toward reducing this gas, we can take that reduction to the carbon market,” he said.
“When we hear ‘net zero’, we think about carbon, but that would mean no more GHG is being produced, and that is not possible. I have told the dairy industry this for years. Why is (zero GHG) not possible? Because cows always belch, and we can’t offset that, and furthermore, we do not need to offset that because it is not new methane,” said Mitloehner.
On the other hand, “If we replace beef and dairy made in the U.S., this does not create a GHG reduction at all. This is because we are the most productive and efficient in the world,” he said.
Just stopping beef and dairy production here in the U.S. — and picking up the slack by producing it somewhere else or producing something else in its place — creates ‘leakage.’ This leakage, he said, is where the biogenic carbon cycle becomes disrupted. In other words, the bathtub has a faucet that is out of sync with the drain.
California’s RNG ‘goldrush’
Mitloehner touched on the strict California standards that mandate a 40% reduction of methane be achieved by the state by 2030. Again, methane is targeted because of its warming potential per the Paris Accord.
The good news, he said, is California is using incentives to encourage covering manure lagoons to capture a percentage of the biogas bubble so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere but is trapped beneath the tarp and converted into renewable natural gas (RNG) that can be sold as vehicle fleet fuel to replace diesel.
Because this RNG comes from a captured and converted methane source, it is considered a most carbon-negative fuel in the state’s low-carbon fuel standard.
Those credits equate to $200 per ton of CO2 replaced with a carbon-negative renewable, said Mitloehner.
“This is a huge credit. This is why dairies are flocking to get lagoons covered to trap and convert. These credits are guaranteed for 10 years in California, but the anti-agriculture activists are fuming over them,” said Mitloehner.
Of all California investments made toward achieving the 40% methane reduction goal, dairy has received just 3% of funds, but has achieved 13% of reductions so far.
This “carrot” approach has incentivized the biogas RNG projects assuming $4000 income per cow, making an estimated $1500 to $2000 per cow per year on a 10-year California fuel standard guarantee.
Mitloehner noted that the carbon intensity of the reduction is presently viewed as greater when RNG is used in vehicles vs. generating electricity, but right now there is not enough RNG suitable for vehicle use. He sees the fuel use increasing in the future and explained that dairies anywhere can sell into the California market if they capture biogas and convert it to RNG.
The state’s 10-year guarantee has stimulated companies seeking to invest in RNG projects on large dairy farms, where they then own or share the credits.
Mitloehner answered a few questions from producers about the caveats. If the bottom and top of the lagoon are covered, what happens to the sludge that accumulates? He acknowledged there is no satisfactory answer to that question presently.
Another drawback is the technology only works for larger dairies because smaller lagoons won’t have the same breakeven. Community digester models are emerging as well, he said, but they also use clusters of large farms working together.
Soil carbon sequestration
Mitloehner cited soil carbon sequestration as a way dairy farms of any size can be a solution.
It’s the process by which agriculture and forestry take carbon out of the air via the plant root systems that allow the soil microbes to take it into the soil — unless the soil is disturbed by tilling or it is released through fires. With good forest and grassland management, as well as low- and no-till farming practices, carbon can be sequestered to stay in the ground forever, according to Mitloehner.
“Agriculture and forests are the only two ways to do this,” he said, adding that USDA seeks to incentivize practices that take and keep more of the atmospheric carbon in the soil.
Answering questions from producers, he noted that he has not yet seen a scheme that would incentivize soil carbon sequestration through marketing offsets, but the discussions are heading in that direction.
“Many of the environmental justice communities are running wild on this. They do not want farmers to get any money for it. They are putting on significant pressure and threatening lawsuits, so it’s not settled yet,” he reported.
There is also a lot of confusion around soil carbon sequestration and “regenerative” agriculture. One big problem is that producers who are doing some of these things, already, won’t get the opportunity to capitalize on those practices when offset protocols are eventually developed — if those practices are not deemed “additive.”
“If you are doing something now and are not covered by a policy of financial incentive, then four years from now, if it is developed, they’ll say you don’t qualify because you are already doing it,” said Mitloehner.
“They are calling it ‘additionality.’ It’s about the change to doing it to qualify. That seems crazy, but it’s like if you bought an electric vehicle 10 years ago when there was no tax credit, you don’t get a tax credit now for already owning an EV because the improvement is not ‘additional,’” he explained.
What about the burps?
For farms with under 1000 cows, other technologies like feed additives can be used on any size dairy with effects realized within a week, said Mitloehner, noting one product that is commercially available and several others on the docket.
If a 10 to 15% reduction can be achieved in enteric (belching) methane reduction, then it will be marketable. Right now, these reductions are not marketable. If an offset protocol is developed for this in the future, it will be taken to the carbon market, he said.
In the meantime, incentives are being offered within supply chains, according to Mitloehner. Companies like Nestle, Starbucks and others are doing pilot projects and buying feed additives for the farmers within their supply chains to reduce their products’ GHG. He said there is some evidence these products can enhance components and feed efficiency. This is a big area of research right now.
A question was also asked during the webinar, wondering about Amish farms using horses instead of tractors. Are they contributing to cooling?
Mitloehner replied that he has not yet seen a calculation for this, and while the impact of horses would be less than the impact of burning fossil fuels, there is still an environmental impact to calculate.
Since the international focus is on ‘additional warming impact’, methane is – like it or not — the target. Whether a dairy farm is managed conventionally or in the Amish tradition, the cows, the methane, and how governments and industry measure the ‘additional warming impact’ of cow-sourced methane, is still the crux of the issue for all dairy farms. If efficiency is reduced, then the ability to position the dairy farm as ‘cooling’ may be more complicated, or less significant, he said.
In addition to accurate definitions that acknowledge climate neutrality of constant cattle herds producing no new methane, Mitloehner’s wish is for federal policy to also take productivity (and nutrient density) into stronger consideration when evaluating emission intensity “instead of just counting heads of cattle.
“This can be good for large or small dairies with a high or low footprint. When the relative emissions are determined by how you manage the dairy, the hope is that this is more about the how than the cow.”
Innovation in the face of disruption, that was one of the themes of the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience last week. In fact, Alltech CEO and president Dr. Mark Lyons talked about how innovation has been the driving force behind 35 years of the annual “ideas conference”.
This year, due to COVID-19 preventing the conference from happening in-person, innovation turned the ONE conference into a virtual experience for the first time with participation by over 23,000 people from 144 countries.
“We live in a time of great opportunity, we have younger people asking questions, and when farmers get those questions, they should answer them and not defer,” said Dr. Frank Mitloehner. Friday’s ONE keynote speaker.
Dr. Mitloehner is a University of California-Davis animal science professor and air quality specialist as well as world renown greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions expert. He talked on his favorite subject: “Clearing the air: Debunking the myths of agriculture.”
Mitloehner is a foremost authority on air quality emissions and how to mitigate them within the context of livestock and agriculture, and he is an integral part of a benchmarking project for the environmental footprint for livestock.
The project he deems most important of his career is “getting animal agriculture to a place where we consider it climate neutral,” he said, adding that climate was top-of-mind before COVID-19, and will be again. “There’s a lot of interest in this.”
But the path to climate neutrality begins with proper accounting for methane and how it behaves in the biogenic cycle.
“The one missing entity is the media on this,” said Mitloehner. “We are seeing a major new narrative about animal agriculture and the accurate quantifying of methane, but it is problematic that media are not reporting about it.”
Despite lack of media coverage, Mitloehner expects the new narrative to take hold.
He gave a vivid example of why accurate measurement is needed. Speaking in Ireland recently, he compared photos of the Emerald Isle to photos of Los Angeles to photos of a coal-fired power plant in Europe.
Ireland is so green, with pastures, hedges and forages everywhere, he said. But the way carbon is conventionally quantified, Ireland would have the largest carbon footprint of the three examples.
“But the change in how we perceive GHG is materializing as we speak. We have to think about methane not just produced but also degraded, and how GHG is sequestered,” Mitloehner explained.
In the old way of quantifying carbon by looking at methane budgets (left side of graphic), not only are methane’s short-lived properties as a ‘flow gas’ ignored, but also the sequestration (shown on the right side) provided by agriculture and forestry as part of a biogenic cycle. Screenshot from Friday’s keynote presentation by Dr. Frank Mitloehner during Alltech’s ONE Virtual Conference.
Using the old way, “They don’t think of sectors like forestry and agriculture serving as a sink for GHG,” he said, comparing the three GHGs — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — in terms of their heat trapping capacity.
“So they look at methane and translate it to a CO2 equivalent. That’s what people have been doing since 1990,” he said. “At that time, scientists had several footnotes and caveats, but they were cut off and people ran with the slides without the footnotes. That is a dangerous situation that has gotten animal agriculture into a lot of trouble actually.”
He explained that CO2 is a long-lived climate pollutant, whereas methane is short lived. Methane is different. Unfortunately, when methane emissions are calculated globally for sectors each year, they don’t consider the whole picture.
“If we don’t get this question right, and the livestock moves, then we have ‘leakage,’” he said. “Most people add it up and stop discussion there, but they shouldn’t. On the right side of the graph are these sinks, and they amount to a respectable total, so the net methane per year is a fraction of the total number they are using.”
Another difference is the life span of these gases. CO2 lives 1000 years, nitrous oxide hundreds of years, methane 10 years, Mitloehner explained. “The methane our cows put out will be gone after 10 years, it is produced and destroyed.”
Dr. Mark Lyons brought up all the talk about “planetary diets” and the “spin and marketing” of eating for you and the planet.
Mitloehner said “the inference of diet on environment is greatly overplayed for PR purposes. The impacts are much lower than some people say who want to sell their alternatives. If and when comparing food groups, it must be done fairly. A pound of beef has a different footprint than a pound of lettuce, but it also has a vastly different nutritional profile.”
Another example he gave was dairy vs. almond juice. “Using the old way of assessing the impact of dairy milk, it is 10 times greater, but almond juice has a 17 times greater water footprint. You can make any food shine, but drill into it and there is no silver bullet. People will continue to eat animal sourced foods and the sound argument is to allow us to produce what people need and crave in the lowest impact possible and that is the route we are going.”
The good news, he said, is that for every one vegan, there are five former vegans. The retention is not good.
He talked the virtual ONE attendees through the process of where carbon comes from and where it ends up. This is why GHG from livestock are significantly different from other sources such as fossil fuel.
Plants need sunlight, carbon in the form of CO2, which is made into carbohydrate, cellulose or starch, ingested by the cow into the rumen where some of it is converted into methane. And after a decade, that methane is converted back into CO2 needed by the plants to make carbohydrate.
“The carbon from our methane originates in the atmosphere, goes through plants, to animals, to air, and again, on repeat,” said Mitloehner.
In this biogenic cycle, if there are constant livestock herds, “then you are not adding carbon to the atmosphere, it is all recycled,” he explained. “What I’m saying here doesn’t mean methane doesn’t matter, but the question really is: Do our livestock herds add to additional methane for additional warming, and the answer is NO.”
This is a total change in the narrative around livestock, and it will be the narrative in the years to come, according to Mitloehner. Because dairy and beef herds have declined so much since the 1950s and 1970s — producing more animal protein at the same time, “We have not caused an increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere but have decreased the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere,” said Mitloehner.
The difference between animal agriculture and fossil fuels is a cycle vs. a one-way street.
“Each time you drive to work, you put CO2 into the atmosphere that lasts 1000 years, and it is a stock gas that adds up each day,” Mitloener said. “Everytime we put it in the atmosphere we add to the existing stock. This is why the curve always goes up, because it is a long-lived climate pollutant. Methane on the other hand is flow gas. Cows can put in the air Monday, but on Tuesday a similar amount that is put in is also being taken out. By having a constant number of cows, you are not adding methane into the atmosphere. The only time you add is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or by increasing herd size.”
He quoted researchers from Oxford University who are also communicating this science and technical papers to the public. But again, the media in general are ignoring it.
What really gets Mitloehner energized are the concepts like biogas and use of it as a renewable fuel in vehicles, for example, and other technologies where dairy and livestock operations can take their climate neutrality and turn it into a cooling effect by counteracting the warming caused by other sectors.
“The current way of accounting for it is a flawed way of looking at it, because it does not account for the fact that keeping methane stable, the amount of warming added is actually zero,” he said. And this is where to build incentive to make up for other sectors that are actively adding to the warming.
“If we were to reduce methane, we could induce cooling,” he said. “We have the ability to do that. This is how agriculture, especially animal agriculture, can be the solution to the warming caused by other sectors of the economy and life.”
Mitloehner measures to quantify the impact of mitigation technologies to see if we can get to that point of reducing other emissions. He talked about California law mandating reduction of methane by 40% by 2030.
“They’ve reduced by 20%, using the carrot instead of the stick. The state incentivizes the financing of technologies that mitigate,” said Mitloehner. “We are now at 25% of the 40% total reduction. If we can do it here, it can be done in other parts of the country and the world… and it means our livestock sector will be on the path of climate neutrality.”
If you have a ‘beef’ with GHG reporting, contact Dr. Mitloehner on Twitter. You can follow him there @GHGGuru. He urges farmers to get involved, get engaged.