In 2015, National Geographic ran a story with the headline, “Eating a burger or driving a car, which harms the planet more?”
That sort of news has plagued the cattle industry for the last decade, causing a few consumers to conclude that eating beef is as socially acceptable as lighting up a cigarette at a baby’s baptism.
Canadian research from 2016 shows that beef cattle emit about 3.6 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas production, compared to 25 percent for Canada’s transportation sector.
Such facts do little to sway the public when it comes to cattle and climate change but a new feed supplement being tested at a feedlot in Alberta might just change the narrative.
The supplement is called 3NOP and preliminary tests show it can reduce the amount of methane cattle emit.
“We now have clear evidence that 3NOP can have a long-term positive effect on reducing methane emissions and improving animal performance. We saw a 30 to 50 percent reduction in methane over a long period of time and a three-to-five percent improvement in feed efficiency,” said Karen Beauchemin, a ruminant nutrition specialist with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.
DSM Nutritional Products, a Dutch firm, developed the 3NOP compound. An Ag Canada document said it inhibits an enzyme known as coenzyme M reductase, which is responsible for creating methane in a cow’s rumen.
Small-scale studies at Ag Canada in Lethbridge showed that 3NOP is effective at reducing methane emissions, so Beauchemin is following up with a larger study.
“Agriculture Canada is … in a research consortium, doing very large-scale feeding evaluations at a commercial feedlot in Alberta,” she said. “That’s taking place over a course of a year with multiple diets and we’re measuring reduction on those diets.”
DSM Nutritional Products is going through the process to register the supplement in Canada, the United States and other parts of the world. That means toxicology studies and other work to demonstrate that the supplement is safe.
Beauchemin isn’t the only scientist studying 3NOP. Animal nutrition experts at Penn State University fed the supplement to dairy cattle and found similar results; it reduced methane emissions by 30 percent.
Cutting methane by 30 percent is significant because it is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Beauchemin said the potential to cut methane emissions from cattle is exciting but the technology has limitations.
“If you really want to reduce methane emissions from beef cattle you need to address the beef cow on pasture,” she said. “But it’s a first step…. In terms of the environment, I think it’s a great story.”
The larger question is whether cattle producers and feedlot owners will pay for the supplement, when or if it comes to market.
Producers aren’t paid for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s difficult to justify the extra cost.
Nonetheless, research shows the supplement does boost feed efficiency, by three to five percent or more, and that may convince producers to give it a try.
Depending on the results of trials in Lethbridge and the tests for registration purposes, 3NOP could be on the market soon.
“I’m not privy to that (information),” Beauchemin said. “But in my discussions with the company, certainly I think it will be less than five years.”