Lemongrass feed idea gets a reaction

Burger King has released a video promoting its efforts to mitigate climate change, but the suggestion that feeding lemongrass to cattle might be part of the solution has stirred up controversy.  |  Burger King screen capture

Burger King forced to ask for more advice on its claim that feeding lemongrass to cattle can reduce methane emissions

The fast food company that markets the Whopper has garnered whopping attention in the cattle industry with a recent campaign that purports to reduce cattle methane emissions.

Reaction was so swift that the company pulled its television advertisements that started in mid-July and has asked animal science professor Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the University of California, Davis, to advise it further.

“We’re working to change our cows’ diet and help fight climate change,” said a promotion by Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King. By feeding lemongrass to cattle in the later stages of their feeding regimen, the company said it has data showing a 33 percent reduction in cattle methane emissions. Methane is considered to be one of the most harmful greenhouse gases, although it does not persist in the environment for as long as CO2.

Part of the Burger King promotion of its efforts includes video of a young suit-clad and guitar-strumming cowboy who sings a ditty that includes reference to cattle emissions.

“When cows fart and burp and splatter, well it ain’t no laughing matter. They’re releasing methane every time they do,” he sings. “And that methane from the rear goes up to the atmosphere and pollutes our planet, warming me and you.”

The campaign and the research behind it has been panned by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the United States-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as being based on limited data and unverified results.

“We applaud the effort to work on solutions to reducing methane emissions from cattle. That is an important goal toward the overall sustainability of the beef industry,” said Amie Peck, public and stakeholder engagement manager with the CCA.

“But we would say that any solutions need to be based on research that has been completed and peer reviewed and not on ongoing studies.”

Peck said the campaign is creative and attention to cattle’s relationship to greenhouse gas emissions is welcomed from the fast food industry. However, the research behind the methane reduction claim has not been replicated.

As well, the campaign implies that rearward emissions from cattle are the problem but bovines emit most of their gases by belching.

“We all know that the majority of methane emissions from cattle comes from belching and not from flatulence. The fact that they’ve sort of reduced an important area of study for the beef industry down to a bathroom joke is unfortunate,” said Peck.

There is considerable research done and underway into feeds or additives that can reduce cattle methane emissions. Lemongrass is unlikely to be a viable solution for Canadian producers, given that it is a tropical grass not suited to growth in a northern climate.

The RBI lemongrass research, conducted in Mexico, could not be replicated by researchers at the University of California, Davis. Differences in type of lemongrass was thought to be the reason, according to RBI.

Tim McAllister, an Agriculture Canada senior researcher who has done extensive work with cattle and greenhouse gas emissions, said he thinks RBI and Burger King “jumped the gun” in basing promotions on the Mexico research, which has not been peer-reviewed.

“I looked at the literature and there’s one paper published in the Pakistani Journal of Animal Science that suggested the lemongrass may reduce (methane emissions) but they didn’t really identify what the active ingredient was. They claimed it was essential oils, but the concentration of essential oils was really low,” McAllister said.

“There’s been a huge amount of work done on essential oils trying to lower methane emissions, all of which has been largely unsuccessful.”

He said research on seaweed in cattle diets is much more compelling but that comes with its own challenges relating to scale, availability and transport.

“With all of these technologies, when you’re trying to bring them up for a solution, you have to look at the big picture. If something lowers methane production but you can’t grow it, or the yields are so low that the costs make it hundreds of dollars per tonne, or if you have to add so much of it to the diet you would never be able to scale up to produce enough … all of those additional things need to be considered.”

Colin Woodall, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told Meatingplace that the nutrition study on which the campaign is based was “small and poorly conceived” and does not align with industry research efforts already aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of beef.

However, Mack Graves, an animal protein specialist also writing in Meatingplace, said the initiative “may be the first attempt by beef companies closest to the consumer — that is, restaurants — taking steps to address a scientifically proven climate-changing problem, which is the deleterious effect of methane emitted into the atmosphere.”

On its website where it discusses the new campaign, RBI uses the disputed figure that livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Experts suggest the true figure is closer to three percent.

The website provides a simple explanation of cattle digestion and explains the rationale behind attempts to reduce methane emissions from that process as part of the fight against further global warming.

“We found that by adding 100 grams of dried lemongrass leaves to the cows’ daily feed, we were able to see a reduction of up to 33 percent on average of methane emissions during the period the diet was fed …. And the good news is that this reduction was powered by a natural plant that grows from Mexico to India,” the site said.

RBI acknowledged its activities are only part of the climate change puzzle and it has made the lemongrass feed formula available and free for others to use.

Burger King is serving the reduced-methane beef this month in Whoppers at restaurants in Miami, New York, Austin, Los Angeles and Portland. They will be labelled as containing “reduced methane emissions beef.”

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