Cattle produce more methane than many large countries. A solution could be an ecological and financial breakthrough–and a Swiss biotech company may be on the cusp.
By Adam Satariano May 1, 2020
LANCASTER, England— Peaches, a brown-and-white Jersey cow weighing 1,200 pounds, was amiably following Edward Towers through a barn on a sunny March morning when the 6-year-old dug in her front hooves.
Mr. Towers, a 28-year-old farmer whose family owns Brades Farm, near Britain’s rugged Lake District, slapped Peaches gently to move her along. She didn’t budge. Already muddy from a morning herding hundreds of cows to a milking session, Mr. Towers leaned all his weight into Peaches’ ample backside, until she finally stepped through a metal gate that would hold her head still for an exam.
Deepashree Kand, a scientist studying animal nutrition, stepped forward with a device about the size of a grocery-store scanner. As David Bowie’s “Changes” played on the radio, Ms. Kand pointed a green laser at the cow’s nostril and waited for Peaches to belch.
Ms. Kand’s employer, a Swiss company called Mootral, is studying whether an altered diet can make cattle burp and fart less methane–one of the most harmful greenhouse gases and a major contributor to climate change. If they were a country, cows would rank as the world’s sixth-largest emitter, ahead of Brazil, Japan and Germany, according to data compiled by Rhodium, a research firm.
It is a well-known problem that has had few promising solutions. But in the last five years, a collection of companies and scientists has been getting closer to what would be an ecological and financial breakthrough: an edible product that would change cows’ digestive chemistry and reduce their emission of methane.
Several companies are pursuing a seaweed-based compound, and a Dutch firm, DSM, is testing a chemical supplement with promising results. Mootral is one of the furthest along. By mixing compounds from garlic, citrus and other additives into a pellet that’s mixed with a cow’s regular diet, the start-up has surprised scientists by significantly and consistently cutting the toxic output of animals like Peaches.
At Brades Farm, Ms. Kand kept her laser steady. Changes in the light beam would measure the methane in Peaches’ burps, which she produced about once every four minutes. Soon, there was a subtle flex in the cow’s neck, and Ms. Kand’s device put out a few readings: 32 to 38 parts per million.
“That’s good,” Ms. Kand said. “A reduction of about 30 percent.”
The drop was consistent with the findings of several peer-reviewed studies of Mootral’s food supplement. Additional trials are underway in the United States and Europe. The product is being tested at dairy and meat farms, including a Dutch farm used by McDonald’s for studying new techniques in its supply chain. The venture capitalist Chris Sacca, who became a billionaire with early bets on Uber and Twitter, has invested.
Many questions of viability remain. Mootral must prove that its product works on different breeds of cows and in different climates. It has had success in areas with mild weather, like Northern Europe, but is now conducting experiments in hotter locations.
Most urgent, the company must find its place in the coronavirus economy. An investment round that was scheduled to close in March fell apart because of the crisis. The start-up’s business model depends on convincing typically conservative livestock and dairy companies that they will receive credits they can sell in the unpredictable and largely unregulated carbon-offset market for using what is basically Gas-X for cows.
But if Mootral or one of its competitors can withstand the challenges of the coronavirus era and hold up at scale, the result could be one of the simplest and fastest ways to cut a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“It is something, to be honest, that I never expected,” said Gerhard Breves, a longtime livestock researcher in Germany who performed one of the first independent tests of Mootral’s product and is now an unpaid member of its advisory board.
‘An existential threat’
Cows are a digestive miracle. Inside their stomach is an oxygen-free environment with a steady temperature, similar to the fermentation tanks used to make beer. Microbes decompose and ferment materials like cellulose, starch and sugars. Cows can eat just about anything–grass, hay, cornstalks, rapeseed–and turn it into energy for producing milk and meat.
“They could live on wood,” said Mootral’s director of science, Oliver Riede, a molecular biologist who started his career studying vaccines and infection management.
But just as a midnight pizza can come with a gaseous cost, a cow’s digestive system has a way of retaliating. Methane is a main byproduct of the enzymes that help break down the food. The gas can’t be turned into energy, so as it builds up, a cow must burp, sending little puffs of pollution into the atmosphere. (A small amount is released by farting.) Up to 12 percent of a cow’s energy intake from food is lost this way.
There are about 1.4 billion cattle globally, each emitting the equivalent of 1.5 to 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, roughly half the output of an average American car.
As awareness of cattle’s environmental impact has reached the mainstream, thanks to compelling media campaigns by environmentalists and Netflix documentaries, the meat and dairy industries have felt the effects. Sales of alternative milks and meat substitutes have soared. Vegetarianism and veganism have spread.
“This is an existential threat,” said Joe Towers, Edard Towers’s older brother, who also works at Brades Farm. “Farmers are keen to improve and show they aren’t the bad guys.”
‘Want to smell it? It smells like fart’
Mootral’s main research lab is at the base of a lush valley, in a former mining region of Wales. The company’s work on cows dates to 2010, when a group of researchers participated in a European Union research effort to explore ways to reduce methane from cattle.
The team, working for a company called Neem Biotech, had studied garlic’s antimicrobial properties in humans. In lab trials, the scientists found that it also reduced methane in cows thanks to allicin, the same strong-smelling compound that’s produced when a garlic clove is cut with a knife. But the company was small and didn’t see a business case for the finding, so the work didn’t go any further.
In 2012, Neem was sold to a life sciences company, Zaluvida, that developed over-the-counter diet and allergy supplements. One product, derived from compounds found in prickly pears, gave people the sensation of feeling full. Another helped with digestion.
Zaluvida’s founder, Thomas Hafner, bought Neem intending to work on drugs for people, but during a review of past research, a colleague found the methane work in a computer file named “Mootral.” It explained how allicin interacted with microbes inside a cow’s stomach.
After becoming rich by manipulating the human digestive tract–he sold the supplements business for about $150 million in 2014–Mr. Hafner saw an opportunity in doing the same with cows. By 2016, he put a team of scientists to work testing different combinations of garlic extracts.
The challenge, they learned, was finding the right balance between delivering the maximum amount of allicin without triggering adverse effects. The chemical targets enzymes in the cow’s gut that create methane. Too much could harm the cow’s ability to process food, or give the milk and meat a garlic flavor.
“The first thing a farmer will ask is, ‘What will this do to my animal?'” said Mr. Riede, the Mootral science director.
Allicin is volatile, and the team struggled at first to come up with a consistent blend that would work across members of a herd of cattle. In the lab, researchers used bacteria from the stomachs of sheep–members, like cows, of the ruminant family–to see how certain combinations would change methane levels.