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To Meet Methane Pledge, Biden Will Need Reduced Emissions From Cows — and Congress’ Help
COMMENTARY | The Ecomodernist

To Meet Methane Pledge, Biden Will Need Reduced Emissions From Cows — and Congress’ Help

The agricultural portion of Biden’s methane reduction plan, announced alongside the COP26 global methane pledge, proposes a reduction in U.S. cattle emissions by facilitating the development and adoption of climate-friendly livestock innovations. It’s a notable inclusion, since, despite being overshadowed by the oil and gas industries in talks about methane, cattle are the single largest methane contributor in the U.S. — with enteric fermentation (cow burps) and manure accounting for around 37% of total methane emissions. 

Biden’s plan shows promise. Proposals to increase research on feed formulation and bovine microbiology and provide incentives for more environmentally-friendly manure management would help accelerate the adoption of existing innovations and the development of new ones. But without congressional support, the methane reduction plan risks remaining just that — a plan, lacking the funding for implementation.

The Clean Cow, a new report from the Breakthrough Institute, where I work, found that full adoption of existing technologies and practices — such as anaerobic digesters, manure composting, and methane-inhibiting feed additives for feedlot cattle — could reduce methane emissions from beef cattle by around 10%, and full adoption of breakthrough technologies — including feed additives for the pasture setting and breeding for low emissions cattle — alongside existing ones could cut methane emissions by 53%.

Unfortunately, encouraging adoption of existing technologies and accelerating development of nascent ones is not a simple task. Many existing innovations are expensive and require financial incentives to encourage adoption. For example, aerated windrow, a manure composting practice that can reduce emissions by up to 30% compared to typical dry-lot storage, requires expensive upfront and maintenance costs that deter many producers from implementing the practice.

Nascent technologies require years of dedicated research funding before they’re available to cattle producers, and unnecessary regulatory hurdles facing new innovations could further delay climate progress and increase costs. For example, the FDA classifies methane-inhibiting products like 3-NOP as animal drugs instead of as food additives, and animal drug reviews typically last 7 to 10 years and cost companies around $30.5 million. 

Due to the steep barriers to development and deployment of livestock innovations, achieving anything close to full adoption will require large increases to federal funding for agricultural programs. The Biden administration can shift existing dollars around, but agricultural research, conservation, and technical assistance funding is already spread thin, and cutting cattle methane emissions is not the only mitigation strategy deserving and in need of added investment. Only Congress can fatten the pot of funding available. 

Missing from Biden’s methane reduction plan is an implementation strategy. The administration needs to identify opportunities for Congress to establish new USDA programs — an alternative manure management program, for example — and expand existing programs, many of which already support adoption of environmentally beneficial practices but are hindered by limited funding. 

Passing the Build Back Better bill would get the ball rolling by providing a much needed $2 billion for agricultural research, facilities, extension, and higher education, as well as $27 billion for agricultural conservation programs. And there are other opportunities on the horizon — annual appropriations, for example, presents Congress with the opportunity to supply additional discretionary funding to agricultural research, extension, and education programs.

The main event, though, will be the upcoming Farm Bill. By raising authorized funding levels for Farm Bill programs, Congress would open the door for larger funding increases in future appropriations bills. In addition, Congress could fill critical research funding gaps and provide more reliable long-term funding by authorizing new Farm Bill programs and designating some mandatory funding for research programs. 

To fulfill its Global Methane Pledge commitment to reduce methane emissions 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, the U.S. needs to dramatically increase the development and adoption of low-emissions technologies and practices for cattle production. Biden’s methane production plan provides a useful framework for tackling cattle emissions, but it’s just a start. The Biden administration’s plans for low-emissions beef and dairy sectors hang on the ability of Congress to pass a robust and forward-looking Farm Bill.


Caroline Grunewald is a government affairs manager in the Breakthrough Institute’s food and agriculture program. You can follow her on Twitter @caro_grunewald.

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