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Agriculture industry takes steps to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas


The agriculture industry has generally been hostile towards addressing human-caused climate change, but now it's partnering with a research project in Colorado aimed at reining in methane, a type of climate-warming pollution. KUNC's Rae Solomon reports.


RAE SOLOMON, BYLINE: At first glance, the livestock pens at Colorado State University's AgNext program are a lot like your standard cattle feedlot. There are cows, plenty of mud underfoot and, of course, the ever-present stench. But this operation isn't just a feedlot. It's a scientific laboratory where researchers are learning about the greenhouse gases cows produce as they stand around digesting food. It's tricked out with millions of dollars of equipment, like this GreenFeed contraption - a kind of high-tech gumball machine dispensing tasty cow treats.


SARA PLACE: There's an animal in there right now. He's got his head stuck in the machine, and he's chowing down a little bit of a snack.

SOLOMON: Sara Place is the animal sciences professor who oversees the work. Despite what you may have heard, most methane comes out of the cow's front end - not the rear. So each time an animal gets a snack, it's an opportunity for Place to get information.

PLACE: The air gets pulled from around the animal's face, and whatever they're respiring out goes directly into the machine. And we can get real-time methane emissions data from that.

SOLOMON: Climate experts warn we're running out of time to cut greenhouse gases, like the methane these cows exhale as they digest, which is what this research is all about.

PLACE: We want to find solutions that can help mitigate those emissions to cut the climate impact of beef.

SOLOMON: But so far, less than 2% of federal funding for research into climate mitigation in agriculture supports this type of work. So scientists have forged an unlikely partnership in their efforts to clean up the cattle industry.

TOM MCDONALD: We can feed at one time about 900,000 head of cattle.

SOLOMON: Tom McDonald is with Five Rivers Cattle Feeding - the world's biggest feedlot operation. Cows come to them to get fattened up before slaughter. With 13 of those feedlots across six Western states, Five Rivers is the picture of industrial animal agriculture. And yet, when the climate researchers came calling, they were interested.

MCDONALD: One of the biggest expenses for a research institution like that is just owning the cattle. And so we help them by providing cattle for their research - feed for their research.

SOLOMON: They also donated equipment - to the tune of $600,000.

MCDONALD: The whole goal here is to learn what our greenhouse gas footprint is and then how can we improve it.

SOLOMON: But if anyone doubts the sincerity of the cattle industry's interest in climate action, McDonald points out the donations aren't entirely altruistic. They expect a great return on that investment. When you're in the cattle-feeding business, after all, methane isn't just a greenhouse gas.

MCDONALD: Methane is energy.

SOLOMON: Methane emissions are calories lost to the atmosphere - calories that could stick to a cow's ribs and become beef. So if the company can cut down on the methane a cow exhales, they'll ultimately have more product to sell.

MCDONALD: The cattle-feeding industry is about efficiency. From a cattle performance standpoint, we utilize the tools available to help the cattle grow faster, gain faster.

SOLOMON: McDonald calls it a win-win for the environment and industry. But for all the cooperation, the research is still very young, which Ben Lilliston says is a problem, given the urgency of human-caused climate change.

BEN LILLISTON: Speculative technologies - you know, it's not to say that they're not worth exploring, but would not rely on them as a real climate mitigation strategy.

SOLOMON: Lilliston is with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a think tank in the climate and ag space. And he says there's a more immediate solution - raise fewer cows.

LILLISTON: Reducing the cattle herd is the clearest way to reduce actual emissions.

SOLOMON: That would mean less meat and dairy on the market. For researchers like Sara Place, that's not workable.

PLACE: At the end of the day, we want to make sure we create practical solutions that could be adopted in the real world.

SOLOMON: After all, people like to eat beef, and it just might be easier to tinker with the inner workings of an animal's gut than it is to change the cravings of a hungry planet.

For NPR News, I'm Rae Solomon.

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Rae Solomon
As newscast reporter I keep Northern Coloradans up to date on all the things they need to know NOW. Whatever’s floating through the zeitgeist at the moment, I’m on it.