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Chris Adamo VP of public affairs & regenerative ag policy at Danone
Chris Adamo: Creative financing is needed to help farmers tackle methane emissions

Danone VP on methane reduction in dairy: ‘You can’t force this on farmers, you have to meet them where they are’

March 14, 2024

According to the UN environment program, more than half of the planet’s methane emissions stem from human activities in three sectors: fossil fuels (35%), waste/landfill (20%) and agriculture (40%). Within the agricultural sector, livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation (cow burps) contribute roughly a third of emissions, followed by rice cultivation at 8%.

A potent greenhouse gas, methane is produced in ruminants such as cows and sheep in a stomach compartment called the rumen. Here, microbes break down complex carbs to produce carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which are in turn converted into methane by another set of microbes and belched out.

Methane is also generated by manure from these animals as it decomposes, presenting significant challenges for large farming operations.

In the dairy sector, large players have explored a range of strategies to reduce GHG emissions, from diversifying portfolios to include plant-based dairy to investing in startups making dairy proteins in fermentation tanks.

But what levers can they pull on the farm, and how effective are these tools at tackling the problem?

AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with Chris Adamo (CA), VP of public affairs & regenerative ag policy at dairy giant Danone North America, to talk methane, manure, and seaweed…

AFN: Danone has pledged to reduce methane from fresh milk used in its dairy products by 30% by 2030 (vs 2020). What gives you the confidence this is possible?

CA: It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take multiple levers including better herd management with smallholders in parts of Africa and Asia; strong manure management in the more mature dairy systems in the US and Europe; and technology breakthroughs on the enteric emission side such as Asparagopsis [a variety of seaweed shown to reduce enteric methane production in cows].

But we’re looking at all available tools to reduce enteric emissions, from feed supplements to wearable technology for cows.

AFN: How much do dairy methane emissions contribute to Danone’s overall GHG emissions?

CA: It’s massive, so I think when we look at full scope, dairy methane is about 25% of our overall company footprint.

AFN: How do you measure methane emissions in your fresh milk supply chain?

CA: We use third party tools and methodologies. For example, as a global tool when we do our reporting for SBTi [Science Based Targets initiative], we’re using the cool farm tool provided by the Cool Farm Tool Alliance.

AFN: Where is most of the methane coming from on dairy farms?

CA: The breakdown of enteric [emissions] versus [emissions from] manure is going to vary. It could be close to 50:50 or 60:40 in favor of manure for larger farms, whereas in a smallholder pure pasture situation, it could be upwards of 80:90% enteric.

It all depends on the size of the farm and the design of the farm. So with smallholders in North Africa that we work with, manure is less of an issue than it is in a large modern farm in Western Europe or the United States.

AFN: What are the available tools for reducing GHG emissions from manure?

CA: Manure management is not just about reducing emissions. The design of the infrastructure and how it’s used as a potential value add, for example, adding to fields in lieu of conventional fertilizer, these are all things that dairies have to deal with one way or another.

There are also other benefits for farmers from improving manure management beyond reducing greenhouse gases, so it could be labor issues, it could be space. There can also be issues if there are leakages from the pile or runoff on the cropland where it’s being applied.

We’ve seen manure management projects vary in cost from $100,000 up towards a million dollars, and a lot of times, it’s not one project that’s involved. Oftentimes, it’s multiple projects that you can’t do all at once, so it could be a liquid-solid separator infrastructure and a compost farm, or manure injection equipment.  But upfront costs are a huge challenge and barrier to implementation.

Cows are a big source of methane emissions
A potent greenhouse gas, methane is produced in ruminants such as cows and sheep in a stomach compartment called the rumen. Here, microbes break down complex carbs to produce carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which are in turn converted into methane by another set of microbes (methanogens) and belched out. Image credit: istock/Clara Bastian

AFN: So how do you incentivize farmers to make these changes?

CA: We ask farms to voluntarily engage in our regenerative agriculture program and we provide [and pay for] a third party called Sustainable Environmental Consultants to come in and do an on-farm assessment from cropland to animal care to manure management. Then they start to lay out the various practices that potentially could be invested in or improved.

Then we start a discussion with the farm: where do you want to start? It could be on cover crops and tillage issues, it could be on manure. Every farm is going to have a different priority set based on its particular challenges, which go beyond just reducing greenhouse gases.

But it’s not a case of Danone coming in and saying we know what’s best, but really learning from the farm.

We’re trying to prioritize things that have the biggest environmental impact, but we’re coming at this from a variety of angles and so we might incentivize some things through long-term contracting where we can incentivize efficiency gains, for example.

We’ve also used Danone budget over the years in various ways to share in project costs. We do that in a number of different ways, but we’ve done it with cropland, we’ve done it with manure, we’ve done it with water projects.

AFN: What about other sources of financing?

CA: We’ve tried to help farmers access public funding. In the US, USDA has a program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) that’s available to almost every farm in America and manure projects are eligible for the scheme [which provides technical and financial assistance to farmers for ‘conservation’ projects]. But there’s a transaction cost, there’s paperwork involved, and so some farms are willing to do it on their own and some are not.

The other approach is public-private partnerships where you can build a consortium that proposes a strategy to the government based on greenhouse gas savings, water improvements, any number of different things, and then the partnership engages farmers and distributes funds to farms.

If I as a farmer have $1 to spend on farm improvements, potentially, I can amplify that with government money and have more dollars to spend. So that approach has been growing, and in the last couple years, we’ve seen more money for public private partnerships via the Inflation Reduction Act. And then you can couple that with the climate smart comodities initiative that the US government put out over the last year, that allows private entities, nonprofits or universities to propose approaches and engage a large number of farms.

Danone has got involved in these schemes a couple times. We had our first successful application with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service back in 2020 around healthy soil where we put $3 million on the table that was matched by the government, so we were able to test some interesting manure technologies as part of that.

Oftentimes farms are finding that barriers to these projects are equipment related, so we were able to work with farms to purchase machinery such as equipment for manure injection [whereby manure is injected into the soil rather than applied to the surface and left to dry for several days, releasing methane] and take some risks that we otherwise wouldn’t to try new technologies, take those learnings and apply them to other farms.

Manure injection enables you to take manure out of the pile and prevent it from baking [out in the sun after being spread on farmland, releasing methane]. You’re also reducing the risk of polluting local waterways or groundwater and getting nitrogen savings if you’re doing it appropriately because you can reduce your overall synthetic nitrogen application.

And then that led to our latest initiative where we’re a part of a consortium that’s applied for funds under USDA’s climate smart commodities scheme. We’re receiving applications from farms now to deploy about $22 million for manure projects and I anticipate we’re going to see a number of different technologies implemented as a result.

Liquid solid separators I think will deliver substantial methane savings. [Liquid-solid separation tech creates two manure streams, a solids-rich fraction that can be composted or anaerobically digested, and a liquid-rich fraction that is easier to pump and handle. This can add value to the manure stream, increase flexibility in managing manure nutrients, and mitigate environmental impacts related to manure storage and land application. Manure liquids can also be used to supplement or replace irrigation water if the solid content is low enough.]

AFN: What about reducing enteric livestock methane emissions [cow burps]?

CA: We’ve been working with DSM on Bovaer (a feed additive containing 3-nitrooypropanol or ‘3-NOP’ that’s claimed to inhibit the production of enteric methane) for several years and we’ve seen substantial data, not just on the environmental efficacy, but also on animal care and milk quality impact, and we feel pretty confident about all three of those areas.

We’re now helping pay for some farms to use Bovaer in some markets in Europe where it’s approved, but we’re not locked into one technology at this point as it’s still super early days. There are other products based on seaweed that may help in future although [in markets in which Danone operates] there’s really only one thing [Bovaer] available at the moment.

So that was part of our rationale behind investing in the Global Methane Hub’s Enteric Fermentation R&D Accelerator. We need coordination among governments and universities to accelerate research strategies that provide the confidence that regulators need and companies need in order to make the pitch to farmers that these feed supplements are efficacious, but also okay for their animals and for milk quality.

We really need third party data; it can’t be corporate-led. It has to be publicly-led, publicly available, and peer reviewed.

AFN: Danone Manifesto Ventures has invested in Symbrosia, a Hawaii-based startup making feed supplements featuring seaweed…

CA: We’re hopeful that seaweed is a really viable option if you can get an 80-90% reduction in methane and then perhaps there are additional nutritional benefits that help offset the cost [improved feed conversion rates such that farmers can use less feed to achieve the same yield]. But these are things we’re still learning about.

Danone works with 58,000 farmers across the globe, so if we can get more tools that’s obviously beneficial for us, but I think this is true for most, if not all seaweed products for livestock methane emissions: there’s early very promising data, but we need more robust, publicly verified data to get into commercial operations.

We were fortunate to be introduced to Professor Joe McFadden at Cornell about a year ago, and he was pretty skeptical [about the benefits of Asparagopsis seaweed for methane reduction], but we ended up playing matchmaker between his team and Symbrosia, and Symbrosia has agreed to participate in public trials with the dairy herd at Cornell.

We donated some money to this, but ultimately, this is Cornell’s research, so we don’t control it or own it. Cornell has been able to cobble together funding from multiple sources to build what we think could be a really promising research initiative that could generate some interesting results over the coming year [researchers are looking at the effectiveness of using fresh seaweed in oil instead of freeze-dried Asparagopsis, which would save energy costs on drying].

But the bottom line is that we can’t go ask a farm in a commercial setting to use something until we have really solid data behind it.

AFN: What are the biggest barriers to achieving your methane reduction goal?

CA: The first challenge is farm engagement. You can’t force this on farmers. You have to meet them where they are. Number two, these can be cost-prohibitive endeavors for farms so we have to be smart, prioritize our budgets and look at how we can co-finance, be creative and bring government and philanthropy and others in our value chain to co invest.

Our CEO said this over and over at [the recent UN climate change conference] COP28 in Dubai, that we fully support agriculture and food systems being on the agenda, but we also need to direct co-financing at agriculture, which is underfunded.

And finally, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for methane reduction on farms. Agriculture is very decentralized, so we need engagement, financing and government policies to make it happen. That’s where the Environmental Defense Fund and what we’ve built with them through DMAA, the Dairy Methane Action Alliance, comes in.

It’s a case of how do we build strategies that work within our own network and then how do we build strategies that help the overall sector?

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