A bovine bonanza

Recapping the cow conference

KEEPING COOL WITH

Hey,

I’m on my way back to New York after a riveting and refreshing cow conference at UC Davis. 

Specifically, I had the pleasure of joining 200 of the world’s foremost scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders at the center of one key question: How do we get cows to belch less methane (without harming the animal or production)?

The newsletter in 50 words: Scientists, entrepreneurs, and more are making a lot of progress as we speak to address methane emissions from ruminant animals like cows. This work plunges us into a confluence of solutions, ranging from genetics to immunology, while combining questions that range from the ethical to the environmental.

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DEEP DIVE

On the heels of 72 hours of intensive discussion of whether and which solutions to methane from cow burps are most tenable, I should start by reminding myself some or many of you may not be that familiar with the basics of how and why cattle and other ruminant animal species produce methane to begin with. Rather than ~consume~ a lot of space here on that, I'll point you to this resource if you'd like to get the 101.

Point two before we pass go is that, however you slice it, methane emissions from cows are a (much) larger contributor to global warming than greenhouse gas emissions from, say, aviation. On shorter timeframes, cow burps drive more warming than global aviation, shipping, and road freight (think trucks) combined. If that interests you, I'm happy to shoot the numbers over. I’m writing this on a plane with skant wifi, so I may be more sparse with links than usual.

Onwards. This newsletter digests key takeaways regarding the state of solutions and approaches designed to address methane emissions from enteric fermentation. I have nine key takeaways that are front of mind right now. We'll get to four today and five next week.

Angelic cows I got to meet at one of UC Davis’ foremost research-focused feedlots

The 80/20 rule 

Most enteric fermentation-related methane emissions don’t come from where I used to imagine they did. A year ago, I assumed the majority of methane emissions from cows came from the feedlot-type settings many of us might imagine when we imagine the beef supply chain. I.e., ones where thousands of cows are packed densely in barns in industrialized countries with a highly mechanized production approach.

The truth is that some 80% of methane emissions from cows stem a) from lower and middle-income countries and b) from cows in more pasture-based settings vs. feedlot ones. This dynamic is a product of several factors. For one example, cows have long been bred for efficiency (how readily and cheaply do they turn calories into products) in places like the U.S. Hence, the size of cattle herds in the U.S. has gone down, not up over recent decades, even though beef and dairy production has gone up. Said differently, the U.S. (and producers in places like Europe and Brazil as well) are making more meat and milk with fewer cattle. That also means the methane intensity (e.g., kg of methane/ kg of product) of meat and milk production in these places is down.

Meanwhile, there are 300 million cattle in India (the most of any country), the majority of which have not been bred for maximal efficiency. Thus, they still belch lots of methane without producing as much meat or dairy as their American cousins. Their methane intensity per unit of production is higher.

Knowing that the majority of methane emissions from cattle and other ruminants globally don’t stem from more concentrated and hands-on operations complicates the approach to addressing emissions. In more pastoral settings, for instance, many cows are only handled by a human a handful of times per month or year. Designing a feed additive that can be added to cows’ diets to reduce their methane production could work well on feedlots. It’s more difficult to picture how that solution gets into the majority of cattle globally, whose food intake isn’t managed daily. Which is a good segue into our next section…

The spectrum of solutions

Feed additives are probably the most discussed and most readily invested in solutions to the enteric fermentation methane challenge, at least over the past few years. There are a variety of compounds, whether natural, synthetic, or hybrid, that, when fed to cows, can reduce how much methane they produce, ideally without harming animal health or productivity. While none are commercially approved in the U.S., in Brazil, one product, namely Bovaer by DSM, is commercially available and has shown efficacy to the tune of ~20-30% methane emissions reductions with consistent application across a variety of studies. Bovaer is commercially available in Canada now too. I'd expect Bovaer and likely a few other options to hit U.S. markets in the next 12 months or so.

While they may be quick to market, feed additives are far from the only potential solution to methane emissions from enteric fermentation. Vaccines are another en-vogue solution. Can one design a vaccine to get an animal to mount an immune response to a methanogen or a host of methanogens? If so, the ‘host’ could produce antibodies to methanogens in its saliva (which cows produce in droves). That saliva could then get transported into the rumen, where antibodies could bind to the antigen (methanogens in this case) and work to suppress growth.

Scientifically, the answer is probably "yes," despite all the “coulds” above. But designing a vaccine to accomplish this in a repeatable fashion and then bringing it to market while navigating a complex regulatory framework is a whole 'nother ball game. Suffice it to say for now that I met my fair share of enteric fermentation vaccine skeptics throughout the conference. Still, the benefits of a vaccine worth chasing are that they'd lend themselves more easily to the 80% of methane emissions we met earlier in this newsletter that stem from cows that aren't handled by humans daily or even weekly.

While companies like ArkeaBio have raised a lot of money on the vaccine front, neither feed additives nor vaccines are necessarily the lowest-hanging fruit here. Based on what I heard this week, selective breeding probably is. Cows have been bred for desirable traits for 10,000 years, and the tools at farmers' and ranchers' disposal to manage the genetics of their herd improve exponentially every few years now. In the same way herds in wealthier countries have long been bred for production, health, docility, and more, there's a wide variance in an individual cow's rate of methane production. Methane production is thus something that can be bred for while (of course) controlling for production.

Selective breeding won't necessarily offer drastic methane reductions (think in the range of 10-20%). Still, it's an approach that already 'happens' in many herds all over the world. So, while not necessarily something it's as easy to build a venture-backed business around, in venture speak, it's more of a drop-in solution than developing a new vaccine and getting it approved by the FDA is.

The range of solutions doesn't stop there. On the more harrowing side, I heard things like "reducing age of slaughter" offered as a solution. Putting aside any ethical objections for a moment, if cows live less long, they have less time to produce methane. On the more high-tech end of things, people are also evaluating the use of other novel technologies like CRISPR to genetically "edit" animals to produce less methane.

No beef with beef

Time to get into some perhaps less savory takeaways. Here’s the thing about a conference focused on solutions to methane emissions from enteric fermentation. Almost no one is talking about reducing demand. Likely by virtue of the types of people convened for this conference, as well as by the fact that plant-based meat companies aren’t as hyped as they were perhaps 2-3 years ago, there was basically no discussion of whether we shouldn’t all, you know, eat less meat and consume less dairy as a way to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

Part of this observation likely has to do with the fact that reducing demand for products from cattle and reducing how much methane emissions cattle produce are two work streams that can exist and progress in parallel. Even if plant-based meat products aren’t denting meat demand globally (if at all), work on cultivated and cultured meats is certainly progressing. Maybe those will reach cost parity in a few decades and make a meaningful dent then. Still, scalable solutions to the methane that the Earth’s 1.2 billion cows and buffalo produce today is likely both a faster way to reduce methane emissions now and (slow global warming quickly) and a hedge versus the scenario where demand for beef and dairy is higher or flat in 2050.

Global beef and buffalo production is up about 2.6x since 1961

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that it’s odd to sit in a conference room for two days and listen to a problem (methane) and product (meat and dairy) that stem from a sentient, emotional, might I say beautiful being (cows) largely get discussed the way one might expect an oil and gas conference to discuss a commodity like natural gas. What I mean is perhaps best captured by some of the linguistic abstractions (I heard the word “harvest” used, as opposed to say, “slaughter,” a few sentences before hearing more precise terms like “hot carcass weight.”) There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance to the whole thing that’s hard to ignore. 

I don’t have a ton more to say about that at this stage other than to point it out and to use this opportunity to zoom out and say that, as excited as I am about feed additives, vaccines, and genetic engineering to reduce methane emissions from cows, demand reduction, in general, should probably still be ‘on the table.’ As so often happens in energy and power grid conversations, the demand reduction side of the conversation gets lost too easily.

Cows: A confluence of the best of science

Building off the fact that a technology like CRISPR, which earned Jennifer Doudna the 2020 Nobel Prize in Science, was much discussed at a cow conference, and ending on a rosier note, one of the takeaways that’s most exciting to me is that the deeper you get into the methane and / or cow story, the more you realize that there’s a confluence of the best of technology and science inherent to it. Cows might not seem like the most sophisticated technology. For one, they are, but that’s a topic for another time. But for today’s purposes, I’ll note I was blown away by the range of disciplines that people at the conference bring to their work on methane emissions from enteric fermentation.

Contrary to what you might expect, a cow conference is the perfect place to rub noses with specialists in fields ranging from genealogy to microbiology, immunology, soil science, and much more (even AI). Whatever groundbreaking advances are being made in human microbiology or genetic studies, rest assured there are incredibly sharp people working on the same in animals, including in animals (like cows) whose microbiomes are even more complex than that of humans. Beyond serving as a humble reminder of how little I know and just how complex solutions designed to tackle climate challenges can be, I certainly left heartened by the caliber of people applying themselves here. 

Of course, like a venture-backed business trying to bridge the gap between its seed and its Series A, all these people need more funding, too. It’s easy to say, “We need more money for R&D here!” It’s a whole different experience to sit at a dinner with PhDs who animatedly discuss their work for hours only to remind you at the end of the night that far too much of their valuable time is spent chasing grant and philanthropic funding that’s even more scarce than venture dollars are.

More on all this next week.

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Hope all you U.S.-based W2 warriors enjoy the long weekend,

— Nick

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