Busting methane: Research funding gaps in US and UK regulatory lags

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/William_Potter
© GettyImages/William_Potter

Related tags methane emissions FFAR House of Lords Dairy seaweed

What gaps exist in the areas of funding and research for agriculture and livestock climate mitigation efforts in the US?

And what regulatory hurdles are holding back UK methane mitigation efforts?

We hear from Dan Blaustein-Rejto, director of food and agriculture at The Breakthrough Institute​, an environmental research center based in Oakland, California, and from Dr Annie Williams, business development manager, UK Agri-Tech Centre​.

Firstly, in the US, a recent analysis​ by The Breakthrough Institute sheds light on federal agricultural climate mitigation policies. Despite a notable increase in federal R&D funding for agricultural climate mitigation, reaching $421m in 2023—almost double the amount in 2017—the funding remains comparatively low​ considering agriculture's emissions share.

Surprisingly, while energy emissions outweigh agriculture emissions by approximately nine times, federal R&D expenditure in 2023 for clean energy innovation was at least 22 times higher than that allocated for agricultural climate mitigation.

Furthermore, the analysis reveals that a sizable portion of agricultural funding is channeled towards soil carbon sequestration, while research addressing enteric methane and rice methane reduction receives disproportionately little support.

“The largest challenge to increasing climate-smart agricultural R&D funding is that overall agricultural research funding has been declining. Since peaking in 2002, public agricultural R&D funding has fallen by about one-third according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The largest decrease has been in state funding, but federal funding has declined as well. This has made less funding available for climate mitigation and other topics. In contrast, overall research funding at the US Department of Energy (DOE) has dramatically increased, rising over 60% in the same period,” explained Blaustein-Rejto.

Decarbonizing agriculture: Lack of consensus

Another challenge is that, compared to the energy sector, there is less consensus on how to decarbonize agriculture, said the expert.

“Policymakers have long understood that research to bring down the costs of solar, wind, nuclear, and electric vehicle components would be key to cutting energy emissions. But even today there's little agreement on whether many farming practices and technologies—like anaerobic digesters and cover crops​—are climate-smart and warrant support.”

Evaluating the implications of the heavy skew towards funding projects related to soil carbon sequestration in agricultural climate mitigation research, he said the result is that many other promising and emerging areas of research have little support available: “For example, research on vaccinating cattle against microorganisms that generate methane emissions has scarcely received any funding. To be clear, research on how to better measure and increase soil carbon sequestration is important. But advancing soil carbon science shouldn't come at the expense of other equally important research.”

Examining successful US agricultural climate mitigation research projects or initiatives funded in recent years, Blaustein-Rejto highlighted an example involving grants from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) supporting a Penn State effort​. This endeavor resulted in the identification of a gene in crops enhancing nitrogen uptake ability and regulating root growth angle. The absence of this gene facilitates steeper root growth angles, enabling deeper root penetration into the soil. This breakthrough holds promise for breeding crops that mitigate groundwater pollution and N2O emissions, thereby contributing to sustainability practices and emissions reduction in agriculture.

He also noted that in 2018, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) granted $50,000 to Elm Innovations and the University of California, Davis, to investigate the potential of red seaweed, Asparagopsis armata, in reducing methane emissions from dairy cattle when incorporated into their diets. This research, backed by over $350K in matching funds and other contributions, marked the first of its kind in the US. It revealed that feeding red seaweed to dairy cows resulted in a remarkable reduction of over 50% in enteric methane emissions. Following the project's completion, Elm Innovations, now known as Blue Ocean Barns, secured $27m in funding.

In 2022, the California Department of Food and Agriculture granted approval for its dried seaweed product as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) for use as a digestive aid. Moreover, the company forged partnerships with entities such as Ben and Jerry’s, underscoring the immediate benefits that FFAR’s funding and climate-smart initiatives can yield.

Agriculture accounts for 10% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, stressed Blaustein-Rejto. “It is possible to cut those emissions in the long-term while increasing production. But that is only possible with support for research, development, commercialization, and adoption of climate-smart practices and technologies. For instance, The Breakthrough Institute's Clean Cow report estimated it's possible to nearly cut the carbon footprint of beef in half with widespread adoption of existing practices and breakthrough technologies that need further development.” GettyImages/ipopba

Efforts are underway to tackle the gaps and deficiencies found in the current funding framework for US agricultural climate mitigation research, he said.

The White House has put forth proposals for augmenting funding for agricultural climate mitigation in its recent budget requests. Additionally, FFAR has initiated fresh collaborations with private partners such as AgMission, the Greener Cattle Initiative, and the Efficient Fertilizer Consortium to amplify funding for climate-smart research endeavors. Moreover, in Congress, various legislative proposals have emerged aiming to expand support for research on climate-related issues, including enteric methane​, soil carbon​, genetic modification of crops for enhanced carbon sequestration​, and biochar​.

UK mitigation gaps

Turning to Dr Williams, a ruminant nutritionist, she voiced concerns about the UK's slow regulatory process for methane mitigation in ruminants during a recent call with FeedNavigator. She fears that this lag could lead to missed opportunities for innovative methane blockers, with companies potentially opting to register in Europe instead. 

“Significant innovation is required to meet the UK government's net-zero targets, particularly in the realm of livestock emissions reduction. Extensive research is required across the sector to develop effective strategies for mitigating emissions from livestock."

Bovaer, dsm-firmenich's feed additive targeting methane emissions reduction, which was approved in the EU in early 2022, was only authorized by the UK authorities in December 2023. It is designed to be integrated into in-barn rations.

While several companies are exploring methane feed additives for grazing animals, including boluses, there is a pressing need for regulatory frameworks to align with these kinds of innovative developments, commented Dr Williams. 

"Currently, these additives fall outside traditional regulatory pathways, posing a challenge for bringing them to market swiftly. It's imperative for regulatory agencies to prioritize this issue and expedite the process to ensure timely market availability of these innovations."

The UK Agri-Tech Center, which launched on in April 2024 following the merger of Agri-EPI, CIEL and CHAP, is actively involved in trials and projects targeting methane reduction, covering areas such as genetic improvement, feed additives, and manure management. These efforts are aimed at not only reducing emissions but also enhancing farm performance and sustainability.

One such initiative the organization is involved with is Dancing with Daffodils​, 48-month feasibility research project exploring the integration of a daffodil compound into ruminant rations. As daffodils are grown extensively throughout the UK, the idea is that the production and extraction of these compounds can be local, sustainable, and resilient. The multifaceted project aims to decrease the carbon footprint of the ruminant livestock sector. A potential increase in protein utilization, leading to a decrease in soybean meal requirements per cow per day, could lessen the reliance on imported soy and make the daffodil extract cost effective, explained Dr Williams.

She said in-vitro testing of the compound has been ongoing since the launch of the project last August, with trials at dairy farms in England and Wales led by Professor Jamie Newbold, professor of animal science at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC), expected to start in the summer.

“What we've been focusing on between then and now is primarily safety testing. This involves assessing dosages, toxicities, and other factors to ensure confidence in the dose administered to the cows. While conducting safety tests, we've also been addressing quality control aspects related to the additive. Our aim was to avoid reaching the end of a four-year Defra-funded project only to realize that additional tests are required before bringing the methane emissions targeted additive to market. Instead, we aimed to proactively conduct these tests throughout the project's duration. By doing so, when we release the cow data—anticipated to be promising—we can demonstrate that all necessary safety and toxicity tests have been completed, expediting the process of bringing the product to market.”

In a recent House of Lords inquiry, CEO of the UK Agri-Tech Center, Phil Bicknell, stressed the importance of innovation in tackling methane emissions in agriculture. He highlighted the urgency of action and the potential of emerging technologies to assist farmers, emphasizing the diversity of livestock production systems and the complex nature of methane emissions, while also noting advancements in providing farmers with better tools for monitoring. The House of Lords environment and climate change committee is examining whether the UK is on track to achieve the target set by the Global Methane Pledge of which the UK is a signatory, and examining the progress the UK has made in reducing methane emissions across several sectors including agriculture. © GettyImages/AlexKozlov

Breeding research

Breeding has been identified as holding significant potential for substantial methane reduction gains, continued Dr Williams, acknowledging though that it can be a lengthy process. Nevertheless, the cumulative impact of breeding advancements would be hugely beneficial, she added.

One notable breeding project that the UK Agri-Tech Centre engages in is the Breeding for CH4ange ​project, led by Innovis, which looks at reducing the carbon footprint of sheep farms using a combination of genetic improvement tools and methane monitoring equipment to breed sheep that produce less methane. This project recognizes the challenges inherent in reducing methane emissions from grazing animals like sheep, explained Dr Williams.

Genetics plays a pivotal role in potential methane reduction in ruminants, she said, yet the sheep sector has historically been slower in adopting innovations compared to the dairy industry.

“Breeding for CH4ange encompasses two key components: advancing the scientific understanding of breeding animals for reduced methane emissions and promoting behavioral change among sheep farmers. This dual approach aims to foster innovation adoption and active methane reduction efforts within sheep farming communities. The project also emphasizes knowledge exchange to drive industry-wide transformation rather than project-specific advancements. With the involvement of numerous breeding specialists, led by the forward-thinking Innovis, the project aims to engage the entire sheep sector in its mission to reduce methane emissions. This collaborative effort represents one of the largest sheep consortia in the country, underscoring the commitment to industry-wide progress.”

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