Joseph McFadden: A Cattle Biologist Explains Feed Additives

Did you know that India accounts for about one-third of the world’s one billion head of cattle? Last week on Sea Change Radio, we spoke to the head of Rumin8, a startup that’s working to reduce methane emissions from cattle. This week, we take a more academic approach to the cow burp problem – our guest is Dr. Joseph McFadden, a professor of cattle biology at Cornell University. We learn more about the science of enteric fermentation in ruminants, examine the various technological solutions aiming to reduce these methane emissions, and discuss the hurdles that the feed additive industry faces, and why they are particularly challenging in countries like India.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:32 Joseph McFadden (JM) – We just need to have more investment, more investment in scientific research, to answer the tough questions when it comes to these feed additives, there’s going to be a lot of high demand for various clinical trials to improve their efficacy and safety. And I see that improving, but I don’t think we’re anywhere where we need to be with the current funding climate – it’s going to have to improve.

00:55 Narrator – Did you know that India accounts for about one-third of the world’s one billion head of cattle? Last week on Sea Change Radio, we spoke to the head of Rumin8, a startup that’s working to reduce methane emissions from cattle. This week, we take a more academic approach to the cow burp problem – our guest is Dr. Joseph McFadden, a professor of cattle biology at Cornell University. We learn more about the science of enteric fermentation in ruminants, examine the various technological solutions aiming to reduce these methane emissions, and discuss the hurdles that the feed additive industry faces, and why they are particularly challenging in countries like India.

01:56 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Doctor Joseph McFadden. He is a professor of dairy cattle biology at Cornell University. Joe, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:06 Joseph McFadden (JM) – Thanks for the invitation to talk.

02:08 Alex Wise (AW)  – For the last decade or so, we’ve heard a lot about the dangers of methane emissions from cattle, and there’s people like yourself who are studying this phenomenon. Are some of the technological breakthroughs that have made you hopeful that we’re going to be able to mitigate some of these methane emissions moving?

02:29 JM – So you know, there’s a lot of interest right now in developing different technologies that can reduce enteric methane emissions. You know what I find particularly interesting is that these technologies have some efficacy already proven, meaning that depending on the type of perhaps feed additive that’s being fed to cows. We might be able to see reductions anywhere from 10:00, but maybe 80%. Unfortunately, you know we’re a little bit early in the research process to really determine if any of these sort of technologies are real solutions, right? And so, as a scientific community, we’re trying to sort of take a step back for a moment and really make sure that our perspective is holistic. And in that we not only have effective solutions that reduce methane emissions from livestock, but also that these solutions are safe, safe for the animal, and it doesn’t really modify meat or milk composition. So it’s still safe for human consumption. And we also want to make sure that any potential technology is profitable for the farmer in order to ensure its adoption.

03:36 AW – I asked for some of the solutions first, but why don’t you give us kind of a a broader scope of the problems that we’re trying to solve?

03:44 JM – So you know, methane emissions represents about it’s a high priority in terms of research, simply because agriculture contributes a large percentage of methane emissions from human derived activities. And, you know, one, if you sort of dive even deeper within agriculture. Methane that comes from ruminants livestock is particularly of high priority because ruminates produce a lot of methane in terms of the solutions. You know there’s different ideas being discussed. The first one would be feed additives, right, so different dietary ingredients that could either modify the room and environment, which is the stomach of the cow, or directly inhibit enzymes of methanogenesis. And so we typically define these as the feed additive category. The second sort of perhaps more long-term idea would be developed different types of biotechnologies, such as vaccines, that could really reduce methane emissions over the long term and also require less human animal interaction other strategies being talked about breeding strategies, so how do you develop a cow that just, you know, produces less methane, you know, so you can do this through genetic selection, but this takes many generations and is something that’s not going to happen immediately. So those are sort of the three types of solutions that people are talking about now. You know, you could probably take this a step back even further and say, what have we done over the last 50 years to help solve this problem? And I would argue that the enhancement of production. Efficiency has really been a major player in reducing methane intensity across the world, and I think this is more relevant in the United States and Europe than perhaps developing countries.

05:48 AW – In an ideal situation, how could this scale globally? You know, we talk about changing our fleets with vehicles, let’s say going from a gas powered vehicle to an electric vehicle and that’s going to take time. This is also not just something that you can snap your fingers and say we have a new way of feeding cattle that will reduce methane. Drastically, even if we had that silver bullet technology figured out today, it would still take years to really overhaul and scale wouldn’t it?

06:16 JM – Absolutely. I mean I think we get overly optimistic when you hear something in the news like we just discovered the solution that reduces methane 80% and we get really excited and I think they’re, you know, most people, most consumers are going to say, oh, we don’t need to worry about this anymore and that is far from the truth. The reality is, is that there’s a wide array of livestock production systems across the world. So we’re typically familiar with the systems that are around us, but I will give you an example. If you look at the United States and you know we’re typically, we now see you know cattle that are, you know grouped together and different sized farms. You know, you might have a one hundred cow farm, maybe a one thousand cow farm. They’re the way those animals are managed, sort of more managed as a group. There’s greater efficiency. And we can these farmers that manage those farms can afford perhaps, you know, technologies that directly inhibit methane. But then you look at developing countries or countries with emerging economies. And I have a particular interest in India. We have some projects sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund that. Sort of. Focus on India and the reason why is there’s a country that has 300 million cattle and buffaloes managed by 75 million smallholder farmers. You know when you compare that to the United States, where we have about 9 million dairy cows managed by about 40,000 farmers. So the big difference there. And in India, you’ve got a farmer that manages one or two animals, and they’re managing that animal for their personal nutrition and the nutrition of their family and some income. But how do you develop technologies that can reach 75 million smallholder farmers that have, you know, very little income to support those types of maybe? Novel technologies that we’re talking about, that’s a real challenge. And so as the scientific community, especially of the last year, we sort of think that there’s sort of two broad strokes sort of solutions here. One, let’s keep focused on these feed additives or vaccines or, you know, strategies that are going to perhaps yield new technologies that that farmers can actually pay for. We’ll do that here in Europe and in the United States, but in countries that are have very starkly different production system like India, let’s just focus on enhancing efficiency. It’s not to say like a feed additive might not have application in India, we just think that to get the rapid gains that we need in methane reduction, we’re really going to have to focus on enhancing efficiency, especially in South Asia and Africa.

08:58 AW – And these studies that show the reduction in emissions from 10 to 80% that you’re referring to, can we glean anything in terms of the difference between corn-fed feedlots CAFOs versus a grass-fed cattle? Is there some kind of variance within those two?

09:17 JM – There is, especially when we talk about adaptation to those additives, and so they’re typically what you’ll see. A robust response, especially with some of these direct inhibitors and methanogenesis, you’ll see a robust response in the first few weeks after you first start feeding it and some of the new data that’s coming out suggests that after several weeks or perhaps into months, you start to see some adaptation by the room and environment and by the bugs. And so and then that adaptation phase and what we’ve discovered is that animals that are fed higher starch diets, diets that would be have a higher grain content, the reduction stays lower longer. OK, as you feed more fiber in the diet, which would come from grasses or forages. You know, in that particular scenario, either the efficacy is a little bit lower or their ability to adapt occurs more rapidly. I think one thing that we also over generalize is percent efficacy. You might see a number in the in the news that says, oh, 30% reduction and you think that’s the state. That’s the same no matter the diet, no matter the animal. That is not true. There’s plenty of data to suggest that that percent can be highly influenced, especially by the diet that the animal consumes and that’s basically the fiber and starch content or the amount of, you know, forage or grain in the diet.

10:44 (Music Break)

11:15 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Dr. Joseph McFadden. He’s a professor of dairy cattle biology at Cornell University. So Joe, we spoke to the Managing Director of Rumin8, which is one of the players in these new emerging feed additives for cattle that is promising to reduce methane. What is the competitive landscape from your perspective and what additives give you most hope that we’ll be able to take a bite out of the not insignificant emissions from cattle?

11:50 JM – So right now from my perspective, it’s it’s a chase, it’s a, it’s a mad race to solutions, right. And I I don’t think I’ve ever met more startups than I have in the last year. So to give you a sense of the energy and optimism and financial support there is right now to focus on this problem, so ruminate is a great example of a company that you know they have a product that they’re, you know, trying to develop that’s based on bromoform. So Bromoform would be the sort of active ingredient in seaweed. And so typically when we talk about seaweed or bromoform they typically the conversations are often similar and they work very. They have very high potency, meaning that you know they can dramatically reduce methane emissions substantially, and some reports suggest 60-80%, you know, so it’s it’s very promising but this and that type of product is very unique as compared to other types of feed additives called room and modifiers. This separate category of feed additives are typically plant based compounds that are genuinely recognized as being safe, are grass listed as what we call it in the industry and so the sort of the regulatory approval process and the ability to get a room and modifier a plant based compound into the diet of an animal, it’s going to happen a lot faster. But unfortunately room and modifiers. Have a lower efficacy, maybe it’s only five, 10-15% and so there’s a lot of excitement about bromoform and seaweed simply because it’s something so unique and it has a very robust effect.

13:40 AW – So how does bromoform differ from seaweed and nori that we might eat in Japanese cuisine, let’s say, and what is the challenge to grow it in scale and then distribute it accordingly?

13:54 JM – So seaweed and bromoform both have very unique challenges that they’re going to have to, you know, the manufacturers are going to have to contend with. On the seaweed side, you have cultivation as being a major challenge and what I mean is, is that the type of seaweed that is proven effective is a red seaweed. So good species of disparity, asparagopsis taxiformis, and a lot of these red species like tropical kind of environments. And so you’re really not going to find this off the coast of Maine or something. Colder climates and so yes, one way you could potentially source seaweed is, you know, by in the oceans, you know, wild environments, but you know then you have to think about, well, how are you going to process that. So you even get it across the world to where maybe the cattle are and so you have to think about, you know, not just shipment. And you have to think about drying it down because seaweed is pretty wet and heavy. So there’s a carbon footprint associated with all that that we need to be aware of. Also, when you take seaweed from the ocean, it’s composition can be very unique. It can be could be influenced by stage of growth of the plant. It can be influenced by the species, the season of harvest, and so then you don’t really have a consistent product to sell to farmers and that that makes it challenging. And so there’s been a lot of interest to try to cultivate this using land based scenarios which gives you better control but I’m concerned about the scalability of that to feed a billion cattle – that’s about 1 billion cattle on the planet. And you also have to think about again the carbon footprint that goes into that kind of production system. So on the other side, you have bromoform. Bromoform is just the active ingredient and you’re like, well, OK, it’s actually quite easy to get Brahma Farm itself as a compound. But a bromoform has some major regulatory hurdles. The seaweed also has to contend with but bromoform by the FDA right now. Unless something changes which people are talking about would be considered as a drug, right? And so whenever you have to. Test something that’s considered as a drug that requires A substantial amount of investment and time in order to prove that it is not only effective, but safe, safe for the animal, and safe for, you know, the human in terms of the milk and meat that they consume. So see, we just going to have to contend with that as well, but in scenarios. Like in California, they have already started to feed seaweed to dairy cattle. Now they can feed that seaweed. Because it’s recognized as being, you know, safe to feed the seaweed. But to get a methane sort of mitigation sort of claim, it would have to go through the FDA.And right now, one of the concerns is as a scientific community is we we have to have a very stringent FDA regulatory process. There’s no question about that. But we also don’t have a lot of time. Here either and so we want to make sure we figure out ways to streamline this process, but still be safe about. Yeah, I also say there’s things to think about with Bromoform is that, and this is what’s unique about ruminate, you know, Bromoform works really well, but there’s some shelf stability issues, meaning that if you had a thing of bromoform on your shelf, which nobody does but, you know, just imagine. They have a very short shelf life. It doesn’t last forever, right? And so they figured out ways or testing ways to extend its shelf life, and that’s going to be really important. If they want to see that technology become viable.

17:39 AW – Especially in some of those developing countries that you were talking about earlier?

17:43 JM – Absolutely right. And I think you know, we if farmers are going to pay for technology, you’re going to want to have the substantial reduction, but you have to have a consistency in the response, right. And so the other thing we don’t know, we keep in mind whether it be seaweed or bromo for we know so little about either one. To be frank, I mean, there’s just a small number of studies we’re talking, probably, you know, 10 studies globally. You know really that are, you know, intensive, controlled. So we’re just at the beginning of our understanding of what these potential feed additives or drugs, you know, could potentially do so, you know, early evidence suggests, though, that like for seaweed, you know, seaweed has what’s called an ash content. That is the, you know, the vitamins and minerals that are in it, it’s it’s highly unique in its composition. So there’s not only bromoform. But there’s a lot of, like iodine, for example. And you know some iodine. It’s a good thing. But some of times you have to make sure that you don’t have foods that are overly enriched in iodine and some of the data suggests that some of the milk can have very high iodine concentrations and callus that are fed seaweed. The other one that people might talk about. Would be the Bromoform itself is that it has the potential to be carcinogenic if at a really high level, and that the food or water that we consume. But I want to really be sure that the people listening understand that a lot of these issues can be overcome by ensuring that the feeding level is low enough that you get the efficacy that you need, but also the you know the lack of the enrichment of these residues in the meat and milk that we consume. I think that’s achievable.

19:49 (Music Break)

20:35 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Doctor Joseph McFadden. He’s a professor of dairy cattle biology at Cornell University, and it’s kind of a chicken and an egg scenario in terms of scale. Let me read this quote from you in inside Climate News, where you say “farmers are only going to adopt these technologies if they enhance their profitability.” So do you see these methane reducing additives, enhancing farmer’s profitability, Joe?

21:02 JM – Yeah, I don’t study labeling that much, but I envision that eventually there’s going to be some sort of label that talks about, you know, the carbon footprint of how of these different types of foods that farmers produce, right. And I think consumers are going to be more interested in that information and likely influence their decision in terms of what foods they purchase. In terms of the profitability question and as a scientist, we. I want to ensure that, you know, in terms of the technologies that I study. I want to make sure that if there’s added benefit in terms of improved animal health nutrient digestibility, you know, enhanced efficiency of making milk, those are things that could encourage farmers to adopt that technology over something that doesn’t have those impacts. So with seaweed and bromoform, there’s a lot of potential excitement because if you can decrease methane that much, let’s say 80%, then what can the cow do differently with that energy that typically would have been lost. And so for those that don’t know the terms of that energy that the cow consumes in their diet, about 6 to 7% of it is lost as methane. It could be higher than that, perhaps 12% in some certain scenarios. So the question is, if you’re going to shut down methane that much, then how come or can the cow convert that extra energy to helps, you know, have better health or, you know, helper perhaps produce more milk with, you know, be more efficient. So those are things that we’re thinking about.

22:46 AW – And what’s the range of additive prices for a cattle farmer? I imagine that’s a tough question, but just give us an idea about like, how much does this bump up a farmer’s cost in general using feed additives in general, not just these seaweed ones.

23:02 JM – Yeah, in terms of per cow per day, you want these to be in in the pennies. OK, you want you want pennies to be the price. Let’s say you were able to scale up seaweed. Considering the current seaweed supply and how we source seaweed, there was some estimate of $24 per day per cow, which would which would never happen.

23:19 AW – That’s completely untenable, huh?

23:20 JM – Yeah, completely. So you’ve got to get the price, way, way down or you know something else that’s being explored is carbon credits. And so I know Nestle has starting to think about this and take action on this. And there’s a product called Aglin. Ruminant Aglin is a product that’s grass-listed. That means it’s generally recognized as being safe. It involves plant based essential oils, right? So these are compounds like granule acetate and there’s data that suggests that they can inhibit methane emissions by by about 7:00 to 10%. OK. And there’s also some benefits on performance. So in that particular case, farmers, they adopt A technology they can receive some carbon credit payments for using that technology. So that’s just really that we’re really just at the beginning of that possibility, but I envision and more of that will come in the pipeline, but it also comes with another challenge and that challenge is how do you actually measure and confirm or validate whatever word you want to use if these technologies are working on these, you know individual farms and individual cows that are being fed those treatments. I don’t call them treatments that call them additives. I’m a scientist. I sound like a scientist.

24:35 AW – You’re a scientist who works with farmers and how receptive to this idea are farmers and how aware in your experience our farmers aware of the problem of methane emissions in their product?

24:49 JM – So it depends on the farmer you talk to that I was going to say in terms of the United States farmer, you know the United States farmer is very up to date in terms of the best practices, they have a they have a I would call an innate drive to be efficient, to be economical and they, you know, contrary to what some people might believe, they really want healthy animals and that ensures that they stay profitable, right and so when you talk to a farmer about methane, you know, I think there’s a bit of excitement, but there’s also a lot of confusion and hesitancy. I had a privilege to talk to a few farmers in northern New York and lately, and they’ll ask you some questions about some various feed additives. And there’s just so many questions and uncertainty because they have so few funds to invest. And you know, different ingredients to their diets are, you know, they have a lot of decisions to make. So they have to put the money in the right place and they want to make sure that there’s a lot of scientific support, a lot of the farmers in the United States do follow, you know, with their nutritionists and veterinarians sort of recommend it, which rely on the science. But they also want to see these products tested out in commercial fields, commercial farms and so there’s a lot of commercial farm testing that’s happening. I’d argue like both the you talked to a farmer, I was in Gujarat, which is Western India and you know there’s no concern there. I think I think they’re concerned about feeding their family and that’s priority #1. So I think we have to have that sort of perspective going into this.

26:33 AW – So with our climate pledges in mind, Joe, where would you like to see our priorities placed so that we can get to those goals over the next decade? We don’t have that much time.

26:44 JM – No. You know, the methane pledge sort of stipulates that we have to have a 30% reduction by 20-30 and that’s going to that is very aggressive considering the wide array of production systems across the world. And I think we have to be extremely careful in terms of our science and we have to be extremely careful about how we communicate our science to the world and that communication is so important because we want to make sure that the scientific community generates the information and allows consumers to make an informed decision because. Consumers have a lot of power here in terms of influencing our trajectory and whether or not you know a potential technology becomes adopted or not. They really do have that power and so I think we just need to have more investment, more investment in scientific research to to answer the tough questions when it comes to these feed additives, there’s going to be a lot of high demand for various clinical trials to improve their efficacy and safety. And I see that improving. But I don’t think we’re anywhere where we need to be with the current funding climate, it’s going to have to improve.

27:53 AW – Joseph McFadden is a professor of dairy cattle biology at Cornell University. Joe, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:04 JM – Thank you.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Willie Bobo, the Seldom Herd, and Bing Crosby. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.