Reduce methane or face climate catastrophe, scientists warn

Cows stand in a field near the village of Eghezee, Belgium May 20, 2021.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Exclusive: IPCC says gas, produced by farming, shale gas and oil extraction, playing ever-greater role in overheating planetFiona Harvey Environment correspondentFri 6 Aug 2021 02.00 EDT

Cutting carbon dioxide is not enough to solve the climate crisis – the world must act swiftly on another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, to halt the rise in global temperatures, experts have warned.

Leading climate scientists will give their starkest warning yet – that we are rushing to the brink of climate catastrophe – in a landmark report on Monday. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish its sixth assessment report, a comprehensive review of the world’s knowledge of the climate crisis and how human actions are altering the planet. It will show in detail how close the world is to irreversible change.

One of the key action points for policymakers is likely to be a warning that methane is playing an ever greater role in overheating the planet. The carbon-rich gas, produced from animal farming, shale gas wells and poorly managed conventional oil and gas extraction, heats the world far more effectively than carbon dioxide – it has a “warming potential” more than 80 times that of CO2 – but has a shorter life in the atmosphere, persisting for about a decade before it degrades into CO2.Emissions from cows on New Zealand dairy farms reach record levels

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the IPCC, said methane reductions were probably the only way of staving off temperature rises of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which extreme weather will increase and “tipping points” could be reached. “Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040,” he said. “We need to face this emergency.”

Zaelke said policymakers must heed the IPCC findings on methane before the UN climate talks, Cop26, in Glasgow in November. “We need to see at Cop26 a recognition of this problem, that we need to do something on this.”

Cutting methane could balance the impact of phasing out coal, a key goal at Cop26 because it is the dirtiest fossil fuel and has caused sharp rises in emissions in recent years. However, coal use has a perverse climate effect: the particles of sulphur it produces shield the Earth from some warming by deflecting some sunlight.

That means the immediate effect of cutting coal use could be to increase warming, although protecting the Earth in the medium and long term. Zaelke said cutting methane could offset that. “Defossilisation will not lead to cooling until about 2050. Sulphur falling out of the atmosphere will unmask warming that is already in the system,” he said.

“Climate change is like a marathon – we need to stay in the race. Cutting carbon dioxide will not lead to cooling in the next 10 years, and beyond that our ability to tackle climate change will be so severely compromised that we will not be able to run on. Cutting methane gives us time.”Britain could be taking the lead in tackling the climate crisis. Where’s the ambition? | Keir Starmer

Levels of methane have risen sharply in recent years, caused by shale gas, poorly managed conventional gas, oil drilling and meat production. Last year, methane emissions rose by a record amount, according to the UN environment programme.

Satellite data shows that some of the key sources of methane are poorly managed Russian oil and gas wells. Gas can be extracted from conventional drilling using modern techniques that all but eliminate “fugitive” or accidental methane emissions. But while countries such as Qatar take care over methane, Russia, which is a party to the 2015 Paris climate agreement but has made little effort to cut its emissions, has some of the leakiest infrastructure.

“Today more than 40% of EU gas is methane heavy gas from Russia, which is worse than coal for the climate,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser now with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. “The EU should begin to measure and then regulate methane emissions from all its natural gas imports to begin a cleanup of global natural gas.”

Reducing methane emissions can save money. The UN’s assessment found that about half of the reductions in methane needed could be achieved with a quick payback.

Zaelke urged governments to consider crafting a new deal, alongside the Paris agreement, that would cover methane and require countries to sharply reduce their gas. “I predict we will have to have a global methane agreement,” he said.

Methane is also produced by melting permafrost, and there have been indications that the Siberian heatwave could increase emissions of the gas. However, large-scale emissions from permafrost melting are thought to be still some way off, while emissions of methane from agriculture and industry can be tackled today.

Cows ‘could be the newest weapon against Covid-19’

Cows ‘could be the newest weapon against Covid-19’

Genetically modified cows are currently being used by an American biotech firm to produce human antibodies that subdue SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing Covid-19 – with plans to start clinical trials this summer.

SAB Biotherapeutics, a US firm based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, genetically alters dairy cows so that certain immune cells carry the DNA that allows people to make antibodies.

That modification “enables the animals to manufacture large quantities of human antibodies against a pathogen protein injected into them”, the company claims.

Viral immunologist William Klimstra of the University of Pittsburgh, who has been analysing the bovine-made antibodies’ potency against SARS-CoV-2, said: “Essentially, the cows are used as a giant bioreactor.”

Eddie Sullivan, SAB Biotherapeutics’s president and CEO, said: “Cows make good antibody factories; and not just because they have more blood than smaller animals engineered to synthesise human versions of the proteins. Their blood can also contain twice as many antibodies per millilitre as human blood.”

In addition, the company says that the cows fashion “polyclonal antibodies”, a range of the molecules that recognise several parts of the virus.

“That’s the natural way that our bodies fight disease,” Sullivan claims. This diversity may make the cows’ proteins more powerful than monoclonal antibodies, he says, and they may remain effective even if a virus mutates.

In test tube studies, Klimstra and colleagues recently pitted the antibodies against so-called convalescent plasma from the blood of Covid-19 survivors.

Rich in polyclonal antibodies, the plasma is being tested in clinical trials as a treatment for the virus. The cow antibodies “were four times better than convalescent plasma at preventing the virus from entering cells”, the company announced last month.

The firm hopes to begin a clinical trial within the next couple of months, Sullivan says, and wants to test whether infusions of antibodies sifted from the cows’ blood prevent healthy people from getting infected by SARS-CoV-2 and prove beneficial for patients who are already sick.

Good moos: methane from cows matters less in climate change, says Irish researcher

Methane from cattle should be counted on a different basis from other emissions, according an Irish academic
Methane from cattle should be counted on a different basis from other emissions, according an Irish academic

Scientists have overestimated the effect of agriculture methane emissions on climate change, an Irish academic believes.

Shane McDonagh, an environmental researcher at UCC, said Ireland has been measuring the impact of farming on carbon emissions in the wrong way leading to an overestimation of the negative impacts on our carbon footprint.

Agriculture in Ireland accounts for 33 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions compared with 10 per cent in the EU as a whole. Most farm-related emissions are from methane gas, which has a global warming potential 84 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) over 20 years and 28 times greater over 100 years. Methane gas breaks down into CO2 over time, and loses global warming potential.

CO2, while less potent than methane,

Why dairy farmers across America are dumping their milk




A few weeks ago, Jim and Katie DiGangi started dumping up to 20,000 gallons of milk a day.

The couple runs Darlington Ridge Farms in Wisconsin. They’ve never had to dump milk before, and the practice has been “completely devastating,” said Katie. “It’s very challenging for our family.”
Dumping milk is pretty much what it sounds like: Disposing of milk before it is delivered to processors and turned into dairy products. Recently, farmers like the DiGangis have had to resort to milk dumping because of a precipitous drop in demand from schools, restaurants and other food service providers, which have been mandated to close their doors to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The sudden shift in demand means that dairy farms across the country have an excess of milk. Between 2.7 million and 3.7 million gallons of US milk could be dumped per day as a result of the crisis, the Dairy Farmers of America, a major dairy co-operative, estimated. But farmers can’t just stop milking their cows.
“Dairy is a daily crop,” said Alan Bjerga, senior vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation. “When a young milk cow gets put into production, you don’t turn the production on and off. And so it’s very difficult to be quickly responsive to a crisis.”
Milk dumping isn’t just devastating for the farmers. For Americans who can’t afford food or are unable to buy enough milk because grocery stores are out or capping purchases, the images are painful.
A dairy farmer in Pennsylvania watches 5,500 gallons of milk swirl down the drain.

Pouring out milk is another example of how major disruptions in the supply chain, caused by the pandemic and efforts to contain it, are preventing food from getting to where it needs to go.
The pandemic has delivered a major blow to several sectors, from the airline industry to retail. For the milk industry, the setback is particularly painful.
Both dairy farmers and milk processors were struggling even before the pandemic hit. Such a major disruption has only made things harder. And the rigid supply chain means neither farmers nor processors can switch gears quickly enough to avoid waste.
Nobody wants to dump milk. But doing that now -— along with other efforts -— could help farms pull through later on, and could help make sure that Americans have enough milk, cheese, butter and ice cream in the future.

Another bad year

Before the pandemic hit, things were finally looking up for milk farmers.
By the latter half of last year, prices were starting to trend higher after about four years of low milk prices. It’s not unusual for milk prices to ebb and flow, but the stretch between 2015 and 2019 was a particularly difficult one, exacerbated by retaliatory tariffs from China and Mexico in 2018.
“We had experienced the price milk crisis as an industry,” said Jim DiGangi. “There was a shining light at 2020. It was going to be our rebound year.”
Despite an uptick in prices, those four years took a toll on the milk industry. By the time the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, many dairy farmers were already in a precarious financial position.
“People have burned up a lot of their equity to stay in business,” said Dave Kyle, owner of Kylecrest Holsteins and Jerseys in Wisconsin and a director of his dairy cooperative, Foremost Farms USA.

Why farmers keep milking cows

When Kyle, who saw demand starting to fall off a cliff, asked co-op members to cut back production in mid-March, many balked. “They’re like, ‘We can’t. We just can’t survive if we cut back,'” he said.
In addition to financial fears, there are those practical reasons to keep milking.
Farmers could take steps to reduce the amount of milk each cow produces or cull their herds. But that would mean less milk overall, which could lead to dairy shortages down the road. Plus, with demand so volatile at the early stages of the crisis, it’s been difficult for dairy producers to get a sense of what it will look like in the future.
Adjusting the size of dairy herds now could lead to shortages in the future.

“That phenomena of keeping cows in the herd so that they are here when we need them in a few months, but not being able to use their milk — that’s what is manifested as milk dumping,” said Marin Bozic, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s applied economics department. “It’s a sad picture, but it’s optimal as long as this crisis doesn’t stay with us for too long.”
Milk dumping is the last resort for dairy farms, said Dennis Rodenbaugh, president of council operations for Dairy Farmers of America. But, “it can be the least-cost option, at least in the short term,” he explained. If there is no end market for milk, turning it into cheese or butter and then disposing of it would be a more expensive proposition for the processors, which are sometimes also owned by dairy farms or co-operatives.

Processing bottlenecks

Dairy farmers aren’t the only only ones dealing with huge amounts of uncertainty. Processors are too.
Not all dairy processing plants do the same thing. Some pasteurize fluid milk, while others take raw milk and turn it into cheese, butter or ice cream. And some serve food service providers, like school cafeterias or restaurants, while others sell to big consumer goods companies or retailers.
It’s possible for processors to switch gears, but it takes time.
For Borden, one of the country’s largest milk processors, the drastic shift in demand was a major disruption.
“About a third of our total production goes to either schools or restaurants,” said CEO Tony Sarsam.
“I have dedicated lines to run school milk,” he said. “And we have dedicated routes that deliver to schools.” In mid-March, “we almost instantaneously lost the vast majority of both of those,” he said.
Retail demand has gone up as consumers stock up on staples and cook more of their meals at home. “It’s been quite a juggling act” to readjust, said Sarsam. Borden has transitioned many of its production lines to serve grocery stores. But the shift hasn’t been enough to offset Borden’s losses. Milk gallon production has fallen by about 25%, he said. And even though the company is giving milk away to the needy, it still isn’t able to make up that new production gap.
The company has donated over 700,000 servings of milk to food banks, homeless shelters and other charities, Sarsam said. But those places have their own capacity constraints and can’t take more than they can refrigerate and distribute.
With demand down by that much, it doesn’t make sense for Borden to take as much milk from farmers as it used to.
Like the dairy farmers themselves, milk processors were also struggling prior to the pandemic. Borden filed for bankruptcy in January, explaining at the time that it could not afford its debt load and pension obligations. Capacity limitations and the difficult financial situations mean that processors like Borden can only accept so much milk.

The way forward

Dairy groups are scrambling to figure out ways to prevent more milk from going to waste without further harming the industry.
The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association have estimated that supply exceeds demand by at least 10% and have asked the USDA to provide financial incentives to dairy farmers to reduce their supply by that much for about six months. They’ve also asked the USDA to compensate dairy farmers for the discarded milk for about three months.
The groups are asking the government to purchase dairy products and donate them to food banks, a way to both feed people in need and prevent demand from plummeting further.
Those steps, among others, could help stabilize the dairy sector and reduce dumping.
Rodenbaugh, from the Dairy Farmers of America, said that the co-op is also working with food brands to try to increase their use of dairy products. One way to do that: Cheesier pizzas.
Dairy farmers are hopeful that with help, they'll be able to get back on track.

“Right now we have consumers that are stuck at home,” he said. “They’re feeling life’s a bit bland. How can we add flavor?”
If pizza makers add more cheese to their pizzas, they could help provide a new home for excess milk.
In addition to pizzerias, “we’re also asking all food suppliers to take a look at how they can add an ounce. Add an ounce of cheese to every burger, every taco, every sandwich. It will make a tremendous difference in the utilization of the milk,” he said.
Travis Fogler, CFO and dairy operations manager of Stonyvale Farm, is hoping that more time at home might help consumers return to habits they’ve abandoned, or hold on to new ones, like baking.
“I think there is a light on the other side,” he said. “We’re hoping as an industry that as people have been home, spending more time with their family, eating cereal for breakfast again because they have time to and drinking fluid milk, that on the other side of this maybe that will last and we’ll see an increase in demand,” he said. “As we readjust to whatever this new normal is, we’re hoping that dairy can be a plus and can become part of people’s lives again.”