Methane Matters: Navigating the Climate Crisis with Animal Ag-Tech

Dr. Michael Lohuis, Vice President, Research & Innovation with The Semex Alliance and Bioenterprise Advisor discusses the facts about methane and greenhouse gas, immediate innovative solutions, and obstacles for achieving sustainability in the beef and dairy industries

Posted: Feb 8, 2024

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Mike Lohuis EN Feb2024

Following his map drawn by science and his compass of innovation, Dr. Michael Lohuis guides Canadian animal agriculture, merging the latest technologies with the brightest minds to tackle the industry’s most challenging terrain. His mission is to clear a path that leads our food system in the long trek toward sustainability. Remaining grounded amidst a sense of urgency, his approach is strategic, ensuring that each technological step forward brings greater value and efficiency to agriculture as a whole.

As the Vice President of Research & Innovation with The Semex Alliance (Semex) and a valued member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Committee (SIAC) at Bioenterprise Canada, Dr. Lohuis shares his wealth of experience, shedding light on both the hurdles and prospects that define the landscape of Canada’s beef and dairy industries. 

From Farming Roots

Michael’s history with animal agriculture began on his family’s dairy farm in Southwestern Ontario, where he enjoyed the seasonal rhythms and the teamwork of family farming. Poised to carry on a legacy, his destiny to take over the family farm seemed written in stone. Yet, as Michael’s academic path at the University of Guelph (U of G) progressed, a shift in perspective emerged. An affinity for genetics and breeding directed him to courses that fueled his passion, laying the groundwork for an unforeseen career trajectory.

Upon completing his undergraduate studies, he entertained a budding curiosity for experiences beyond the barn. This curiosity led Michael to Eastern Breeders Incorporated, a predecessor organization to EastGen, which is now part of The Semex Alliance. At Eastern Breeders, he assumed the role of Sire Analyst, a new vocation that offered not only the excitement of visiting North America’s premier farms but also the practical application of his academic inclinations.

With his sight set on a new future, Michael faced a tough conversation with his father, a resilient Dutch immigrant farmer who had cultivated the family land since the early 1960s. But much to his surprise, Michael found support rather than disappointment. His father’s blessing led to another one in disguise – it later revealed an opportunity for his parents to sell their land and dairy operation to another farming family from the Netherlands, which ensured its continued legacy, albeit in an unexpected way. It was in this moment of transition that Michael’s professional journey in the business of breeding truly began.

Journey Through Genetics

The pivotal moment in his career arose during his tenure at EastGen, where Michael became intrigued by the potential of reproductive technologies to hasten genetic progress. His proposal to leverage embryo-transfer techniques within the Canadian artificial insemination sector garnered a substantial grant from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), uniting six different organizations across Canada for a collaborative project. This venture led him to pursue a master’s degree at U of G, which swiftly evolved into a PhD. Upon receiving his formal designation as Dr. Michael Lohuis, he simultaneously embarked on an adjunct professorship.

However, for Dr. Lohuis, academia’s allure was dimmed by the appeal of translating research into industry application. During a period of reflection on his true interests, a significant opportunity arose, moving him south of the border to the United States. In 1998, Dr. Lohuis joined Monsanto‘s Animal Ag division to help pioneer the nascent field of animal genomics. 

An initial five-year plan with Monsanto extended to a commitment nearly two decades long, eventually leading to a strategic shift by the company that initiated a career change for Dr. Lohuis. He stepped across a bridge, away from animal genetics and over to plant breeding. This lateral move enriched his expertise, offering a broader view of genetic principles spanning varying industries.

There, Dr. Lohuis embraced a corporate role focused on sustainability, a role that aligned with his personal values. “I realized that I could help to solve issues surrounding how to feed a growing population, as efficiently as possible, while making the best use of our natural resources at the same time,” he says. This revelation of his true path was a culmination of his life experiences and became the core of his professional ethos. 

In 2017, a confluence of personal and professional opportunities guided Dr. Lohuis back to Canada, to Semex, and closer to family. This move not only marked a full-circle moment but also solidified his commitment to driving sustainable solutions in the industry that had always been a part of his identity. When he returned to Canada, he brought with him a desire and a commitment to apply his knowledge and expertise where he could make a real difference – sustainable animal ag. 

The Truth About Methane and Greenhouse Gas

Greenhouse gases and their effect on climate change are top of mind for all of us. Every day, we hear about this on the news, read it in the headlines, and talk about it with friends and family over dinner. Within these reports and discussions, the topic of methane is a common theme. For many of us, the information can be overwhelming and difficult to digest, particularly when opinions creep into the conversation. 

Thankfully, this expert is here to weigh in. Dr. Michael Lohuis sheds light on this critical issue and answers the pivotal question on everyone’s mind: does animal agriculture contribute to climate change?

The short answer is, yes. 

“Animal ag is a significant source of greenhouse gases. More than 50 percent is in the form of methane. And 95 percent of it comes from cows,” Dr. Lohuis says. He explains that this is enteric methane, a natural byproduct of the rumen microbiome created during the cow’s digestion process. And to clear up any misconception, he adds, “It comes from burps. It doesn’t come from the other end.” 

As cows digest their food, they naturally produce methane, but it turns out that methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, so the digestive process that creates methane is both a biological necessity for cattle and a significant environmental concern. The good news? “This gas, although potent, is relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 to 12 years in the atmosphere before breaking down into carbon dioxide (CO2), being reabsorbed by plants, and becoming part of the natural cycle again,” Dr. Lohuis says.

Now, the bad news: its transient existence belies its impact. Dr. Lohuis explains, “While this gas is in the atmosphere for those 10 to 12 years, it has a disproportionate effect on global warming.” According to him, the way we analyze the data matters. If we look at the impact of methane over 100 years, it has roughly 27 times the warming potential of CO2, but if we look at it over a shorter period, the impact is greater. Over a 20-year period, that number becomes a staggering 85 times that of CO2. 

“We can keep looking for long-term solutions, but we need to do something now. The next 20 years are critical, and the animal agriculture sector has the potential to make immediate changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. Lohuis says.

He shares a memory of a harrowing realization during his tenure at Monsanto while working with a climate scientist from the University of Chicago. The scientist was using climate data as an input for crop modelling, predicting how much grain could be produced as the climate changed. The impact on some countries and with certain crops was unsurprisingly high, but it was the conversation with the third-party scientist about climate change, in general, that made a profound impression on Dr. Lohuis.

“The scientist told me, ‘No matter what we do, it’s going to get worse. Because CO2 is a long-lived gas, we need to pull it out of the atmosphere to remove it, and those technologies don’t exist at scale yet. Global warming will continue, and that thick blanket over us, keeping us warm, will only get warmer. So, we need to slow the warming as fast as possible, with whatever means possible.’ The urgency in his words was disconcerting, and it really stuck with me,” Dr. Lohuis recounts.

While listening to Dr. Lohuis, the urgency to address methane becomes clear. He articulates a pressing need for the animal ag sector to mitigate these emissions. This would not only curb short-term warming effects but also grant broader economies crucial time for decarbonization – a step that could slow the progression of climate change.

To “keep our climate livable,” he thinks the potential for rapid change in methane reduction can make a significant difference. Unlike the slow and complicated process of CO2 reduction, mitigating methane offers an immediate and visible path toward improvement, and his work aims to offer tangible solutions.

Immediate Solutions with Innovation and Tech

Dr. Michael Lohuis speaks to the promise of existing technologies in mitigating methane emissions from cattle. One immediate solution is called 3NOP, a feed additive that reduces methane by up to 30 percent and is fast-acting, with immediate results. He also highlights asparagopsis, a species of red macroalgae, or seaweed, which produces a bioactive compound that inhibits methane-producing enzymes in the gut.

While effective, the need for continuous feeding of these additives poses questions of adaptation by the animals, as well as potential concerns for their safety. Beyond additives, Dr. Lohuis advocates for enhanced efficiency through better feeding practices and higher-producing animals. By optimizing feed digestibility, the agricultural sector can produce higher yields with fewer resources, thus less methane.

This strategy, Dr. Lohuis explains, is achieved through genetic selection. Some cows biologically produce less methane, and by identifying those genes, and using them to build a breeding program, we can change the amount of methane produced in a herd over multiple generations. Although slower, with incremental improvements of 1.5 percent per year, it is permanent and cumulative and could translate to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in methane emissions by the year 2050, as indicated by a recently published paper in the Journal of Dairy Science.

What’s more, he says, “It’s a sustainable and easy-to-implement approach. By integrating methane efficiency into breeding programs and leveraging genetic influence over rumen microbes, farmers can select animals that naturally emit less methane without compromising productivity.” Dr. Lohuis expands on the conversation around genetics with another viable option to consider – “beef on dairy.” 

Beef on Dairy

Newsflash: the beef that we eat doesn’t always come from beef cattle; sometimes it comes from dairy herds. While most beef originates in a beef herd, “beef on dairy” is a method where dairy cows are bred with beef bulls to produce calves that are then raised for meat. 

Dr. Lohuis points out that the beef industry has made progress toward sustainability, saying, “Since 2014, greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of retail beef has decreased by 15 percent, and conventional beef production continues to become more sustainable through better growth and feed conversion. However, beef produced from dairy animals presents an additional benefit.”

Dairy cows are already being raised for milk production, so when they bear calves meant for beef, it means those dairy cows play a dual role, and that’s where efficiency factors into the equation. Using the same amounts of resources, or feed and water, the dairy mother produces milk and beef and, therefore, the cow’s emissions can be allocated between dairy and beef outputs. 

The practice incorporates the genetic traits of beef bulls aimed at growth and meat quality, contrasting with dairy animals selected for milk production. The incorporation of sexed semen has further catalyzed this approach, allowing dairy farmers to produce more female calves for milking herds and crossbreeding the rest with beef bulls for meat production. This not only diversifies options on the farm but also offers opportunities to increase the farm’s revenue stream at the same time.

Keep in mind, however, that “beef on dairy” calves don’t always grow as quickly as their pure-breed cousins. But, while it’s clear that the dairy sector cannot meet all beef demands, this method has a lower greenhouse gas footprint compared to traditional beef production. In dairy herds, a significant portion of the emissions is allocated to milk production rather than the calf, resulting in a lower greenhouse gas “profile” for the beef produced. Although beef from dairy may not grow as quickly as that from beef herds, the overall environmental advantage is notable.

Dr. Lohuis asserts the necessity of utilizing all available tools – from diet modifications to genetic selection – to address methane emissions comprehensively. “These tools can all work together and simultaneously overlap. The important thing is that we use as many of these tools as we can. We keep them in the toolbox, and we encourage farmers to use them,” he says. But sometimes, the latter is easier said than done.

Urgency vs. Stumbling Blocks

Both the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Cattle Association have set goals for reaching net zero by 2050. And if we have immediate tools to reach these goals, why aren’t they all being used now? Dr. Lohuis identifies a crucial challenge in agricultural sustainability: the lack of direct incentives for farmers to adopt methane-reducing practices like using methane inhibitors or selecting methane-efficient bulls for breeding programs. 

Farmers, acutely aware of their financial margins, aren’t currently compensated for making these environmental contributions, despite the benefits these practices offer in combating climate change. This economic disconnect poses a significant barrier to the adoption of greener farming practices.

The second impediment is skepticism towards green initiatives, often perceived as greenwashing. With stringent scrutiny applied to new technologies and solutions, such as 3NOP or red seaweed, Dr. Lohuis points out the necessity for rigorous scientific validation and broad acceptance by authoritative bodies. 

“Today, it’s not enough to claim that a technology works. You need to run the data through rigorous scientific review. Governing bodies need to be on board and this validation is essential for integrating these solutions into the supply chains of major dairy processors, who must also be able to claim credible sustainability improvements.”

European example, Arla Foods, emerges as a leader in incentivizing farmers, recognizing and rewarding sustainable practices within their supply chain. The path forward, as Dr. Lohuis suggests, is to build on these initiatives, ensuring the technologies that prove to be effective are not stalled by the pursuit of perfection, potentially hindering the progress toward a more sustainable industry.

The theme of Dr. Lohuis’ perspective is centred on the roadblocks to sustainable innovation, namely the economic and perceptual challenges that hinder the adoption of methane-reducing technologies. He underscores the urgency of creating tangible incentives for farmers and achieving broader acceptance to expedite the use of these critical solutions.

But is all this urgency necessary? As our dietary preferences and recommendations for consuming beef and dairy change, and as we become increasingly more conscious of choosing sustainable options, do we really need to worry about methane from cows? 

Future Demand Predictions

Here in Canada, as with most developed countries, we have the luxury of choosing which foods to eat. We can avoid or reduce the amount of dairy and red meat, and rely on alternatives, without much concern. But as the global population rises, the demand for beef and dairy is set to increase, particularly in the developing world. 

While developed nations are cutting back, the need for high-quality protein in places like sub-Saharan Africa is critical for health. Dr. Lohuis says, “I think the demand for beef and dairy will shift from the developed world to the developing world, and this shift in demand poses a sustainability challenge. Compared to their developed counterparts, these countries operate with less efficient systems. Not only do their systems produce more methane, but their animals produce only a fraction of what our animals do.” 

This means that, despite the decline in emissions in North America and Western Europe due to less consumption, the overall global emissions may rise if sustainable practices are not adopted where consumption is rising. Notable institutions like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and respected figures like Ermias Kebreab at The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) are working to address this issue, but the need for rapid advancement in sustainable agriculture remains critical.

Hopeful Horizons

As the gravity of global warming weighs heavily on all of us, it may be difficult to remain positive. Dr. Lohuis offers a note of optimism amidst environmental concerns, emphasizing that many solutions for reducing greenhouse gases already exist, calling on other sectors like the oil and gas industry to join in the collective efforts. 

“We can address the gas leaks, we can select genes for methane-efficient cows, we can feed our herds better. We have all these options right now to reduce methane quickly. If we can do these things, it will buy us some time to decarbonize the rest of the economy, with the ultimate goal of designing a carbon capture and storage system (CCS) that works,” says Dr. Lohuis.

Further, Dr. Lohuis cautions against shunning modern technologies out of skepticism or lack of understanding. He advocates for embracing advancements like gene editing and artificial intelligence (AI), exploring how they can be applied responsibly and effectively. He says, “These technologies are powerful, and if applied safely, can make a real impact.” At the same time, however, he adds, “But, to accomplish these goals, private industry can’t do it alone. We need to have political support and government backing.” 

Collaboration is key to reaching net zero by 2050. An example of such successful collaboration is the partnership between Semex and Lactanet Canada, which led to the development of Canada’s Methane Efficiency genetic evaluation. This work was recognized in 2023 with the prestigious Innovation in Climate Action award from the International Dairy Federation (IDF), showcasing progress through joint efforts. 

As we collectively work toward measurable, positive impacts in the fight against climate change, we look to leaders like Dr. Michael Lohuis. Grounded and hopeful, with an eye ever on the horizon, he balances the equation of cost versus value, nurturing innovations that promise a leaner, more efficient future. Informed by a keen sense of investment that is paired with his relentless personal mission, Dr. Lohuis is creating stepping stones that will lead us across the river of uncertainty and doubt and closer to a sustainable future for generations to come.

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