Research breakthrough for mitigation of methane emissions from livestock

A research breakthrough has been made to reduce methane gas emissions from farm animals, it was announced at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Conference in Palmerston North.

Sir Peter Gluckman speaking at the NZAGRC greenhouse gas mitigation conference. Photo NZAGRC (photographer Graeme Brown)Over 130 people were drawn to the first combined NZAGRC/Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRC) conference on Tuesday, which was opened by Sir Peter Gluckman the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor and featured 12 high calibre speakers – both Kiwi and international – in a well thought through informative programme.

A consortium of organisations established the jointly industry/government-funded Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRC) a decade ago, starting research work to focus on the agricultural emissions area, leading to the establishment in 2010 of the government-funded NZAGRC – a partnership between the major research providers and PGgRC. As Gluckman explained, this is now part of the New Zealand-initiated 45-nation collaborative Global Research Alliance (GRA). New Zealand leads its livestock research group.

The annual $14 million NZAGRC work programme here in New Zealand, concentrates primarily on mitigation of the principal GHG for the sector, livestock methane which at 35 percent makes up New Zealand’s single largest greenhouse gas emissions source, followed by nitrous oxide, soil carbon and integrated farm systems.

With over a decade of work behind it, New Zealand has had the most consistently long methane programme in the world, Canadian methane expert Dr Tim McAllister noted in his address.

Results are now starting to show through from the painstaking research work.

The biggest scientific announcement of the day, was news that came from PGgRC chairman and NZAGRC steering group member Dr Rick Pridmore. After five years of work and computer and lab-screening of 100,000 compounds, NZAGRC/AgResearch scientists have achieved a very promising breakthrough in isolating five inhibitors of methanogens, the microbes which produce methane in the stomach of ruminants. Trials on sheep have shown 30-90 percent less methane being emitted from the animals, without, seemingly, any effect on the animals or on production. However, more research is to be done in this area to ensure safety and an effective product for use on farm is thought to be five or so years away. The organisation is looking to engage with a potential commercial partner for product development.

Another promising and exciting project in the pipeline is a methane vaccine, which will be a “world first, if it happens,” said Pridmore.

According to him, “New Zealand should be so incredibly proud that we are so near on a number of fronts.”

Other scientists covered the work undertaken in the areas of: animal breeding (John McEwen, AgResearch), plant and animal interventions for nitrous oxide mitigation (Dr Cecile de Klein, AgResearch); digging for solutions in soil carbon research (Professor Frank Kelliher, AgResearch); and the start of the newest programme aiming at understanding New Zealand farm systems and solutions (Dr Robyn Dynes, AgResearch) . The international perspective on methane research was presented by Dr Tim McAllister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, while Professor Keith Goulding of the UK’s Rothamsted Research covered international nitrous oxide and soil carbon research.

The majority of work to date has concentrated on sheep, but research is now starting on cattle and deer are also in the researchers sights.

Climate change policy

The background to climate change policy and current situations was explored in presentations from five speakers in the morning session – Ministry of Primary Industries director of resource policy David Wansbrough, NZAGRC deputy director (international) Dr Andy Reisinger, New Zealand climate change ambassador Jo Tyndall, strategy and investment leader for sustainability at DairyNZ, Dr Rick Pridmore and the University of Aberdeen’s Professor Pete Smith.

It’s apparent that New Zealand is an outlier amongst developed nations in that it stands alone amongst them as having the largest percentage of its GHG emissions (48 percent) produced by the pastoral sector. This profile has more in common with developing nations, than our more usual trading nations, and New Zealand needs to “build friends” within those nations, said Wansbrough.

In terms of international agreements to move forward on climate change, 2015 is the year when we are due to conclude a new climate change agreement, noted Jo Tyndall. The French hosts of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting  in Paris in December are expecting 40,000 delegates to focus on the task.

The French organisers say there are four pillars to expected outcomes from the meeting, she explained. The first is a legal agreement/treaty under international law. Second, is Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) from each country, detailing targets and proposed post-2020 climate actions. Several countries have already submitted theirs. Others, including New Zealand, are developing theirs for tabling by June.

The third pillar is a finance outcome, “which will be critical to clinch the deal,” said Tyndall, adding that developing nations are looking for support to enable them to mitigate their GHG emissions and climate change adaptation in the run up to, and beyond, 2020. The last outcome hoped for by the organisers is a climate action agenda involving cooperative action at a wide range of levels.

“It’s a demonstration of action that is already ongoing and enhanced cooperation.”

According to Tyndall, there will be no agricultural section of the document, though the land section is likely to be mentioned in its preamble, and it will not replicate the Kyoto Protocol in prescribing action for countries to take, as all parties need to be on board.

“They want to write an agreement for tomorrow, with some degree of flexibility to allow parties to opt in and out,” she said, noting later that Paris “is a way-station in a difficult political process.”

Other speakers looked at opportunities and challenges for agriculture in limiting the increase in warming to two degrees (Dr Andy Reisinger) and the situation and analysis of the global demand side (Dr Pete Smith) – more on that later.

Keep an eye open for next year’s conference. Attendance is highly recommended if you want to keep up with New Zealand’s agricultural emissions progress.

See www.nzagrc.org.nz for copies of most of the presentations and summaries in due course.

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