Tackling enteric emissions part 1: the size and shape of the methane problem

April 26, 2022

Our entire food system is experiencing unprecedented pressures to reduce (if not eliminate entirely) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One particularly challenging area is methane emissions, especially enteric emissions from livestock. Given the growth in the global demand for protein and the environmental (and social) benefits of livestock production, this seems like a challenge worth solving.

There are a broad range of potential enteric emissions reduction solutions being developed and commercialized, but do they all have the same likelihood of success (commercially and for impact)? And what sources of funding are well suited to scale them up?

This post is the first in a short series I’m writing as I learn and think ‘out loud’ about viable solutions for reducing or eliminating enteric emissions from livestock, and whether & where a venture-scale opportunity might exist.

How big is the methane problem?

If you ask ten people about emissions in agriculture, unfortunately, you’ll get nine answers. Here’s what I believe the best available data shows.

Agriculture, forestry, and land use account for ~18% of total global GHG emissions. But, not all GHG emissions are the same, and different parts of the food and agriculture industry have different contributions depending on the type of gas.

When looking only at carbon dioxide emissions, agriculture’s impact is relatively low. In fact, cropping and livestock production are not directly associated with any significant CO2 emissions (though indirectly they are, e.g., because of fuel use, which is accounted for elsewhere). Changes in land use and forestry do contribute to CO2 emissions as a result of deforestation and degradation, though compared to other industries such as energy, transport, and manufacturing, the impact is relatively low.

However, if you zoom into methane emissions, which is one of the most potent GHGs, agriculture is the largest contributor.

Within agriculture’s methane emissions, both cropping (e.g., rice) and livestock systems are contributors. In livestock, the main sources are enteric emissions, which is methane produced as a result of livestock digestion processes, and methane from the decomposition of manure.

So all up, reducing enteric emissions from livestock WILL move the needle on GHGs and is one of the larger leverage points within food and agriculture.

But does anyone care? Turns out, increasingly, yes.

Big drivers for reducing methane emissions in livestock

Given its potency and the fact that more than half of methane emissions come from human activities (versus natural sources such as wetlands), there’s increasing pressure to reduce methane emissions specifically. For example, in late 2021 the Global Methane Pledge was announced, in which more than 100 countries committed to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels. This pledge is one of many increasingly strong political drivers for action, and given the focus on methane, it’s highly relevant to the livestock industry.

There are also commercial drivers for action as a result of this changing regulatory landscape. For example, as financial institutions make commitments to align their portfolios with their net-zero ambitions, access to capital is increasingly dependent on climate-related factors.

And companies must now also, more than ever, consider how they will meet consumer and employee expectations around sustainability.

We’re seeing these shifts play out in animal agriculture for companies both large and small. Meat processing giant JBS has committed to net-zero emissions by 2040 and US-based startup Neutral is marketing carbon-neutral milk.

All of this ultimately will impact livestock producers. As processors and food companies seek to make claims and meet targets, they will have to solve for their scope three emissions- the farms in their supply sheds. In livestock, this means finding solutions to tackle enteric emissions.

Summary: there’s an imperative and opportunity to tackle enteric emissions

Though we certainly need other forms of emissions reductions, and though some of the above drivers have only thus far manifested through small signals amidst the noise for livestock production, I believe solving enteric emissions is an increasingly existential challenge for the industry.

So, what do we do about it? I believe we can expect to see more innovation and investment flowing in to discover and commercialize solutions to reduce enteric methane emissions. In my next post I’ll be looking at what some of these solutions are.

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