Swiss start-ups hope to slow climate change with cow burps


By Tara Giroud,

May 10, 2019


Could changing what cows eat help keep the planet from warming? Several Swiss companies have created feed additives that they claim reduce methane emissions, but the science hasn’t convinced everyone yet.


Cattle farms represent the idyllic image of Swiss life: green meadows dotted with wildflowers and grazing cattle with bells around their necks, all set against dramatic Alpine scenery. But every year, millions of litres of methane emanate from these pastures. It’s a greenhouse gas whose 100-year impact on the atmosphere is about 28 times that of carbon dioxide,external link making it a significant contributor to climate change.


“If you took all the cows on Earth...they would be the third-largest [greenhouse gas] emitters in the world, behind China and the US,” says Michael Mathres, head of strategic projects for Mootralexternal link, an agritech company headquartered near Geneva. He says the agriculture and food industries have been “greatly under-addressed” when it comes to tackling climate change. 


Livestock is responsible for about 14% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, two-thirds of that from cattle, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizationexternal link.  Agriculture is also responsible for about 13% of total greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland.


Climate change from the gut 


The first chamber of a cow’s four-chambered stomach, the rumen, is filled with a universe of microbes that ferment food, making it easier to digest. During digestion, methane forms and escapes mainly through the cow’s muzzle when it burps. 


On average, a cow may burp about once a minuteexternal link, releasing about 500 litres of odourless methane from its mouth and nose every day.  


Mootral Ruminant, a product due to be released by the end of the year, is derived from garlic and citrus. When added to a cow’s daily diet, the company claims it can help cut methane emissions by 30% or more.  


Agolin, another Swiss company, sells a feed additive made from a clove and coriander seed known as Agolin Ruminantexternal link. It’s marketed as a way to increase a cow’s milk production, which improves a herd’s efficiency and therefore reduces methane, according to Agolin Managing Director Kurt Schaller. He says Agolin’s product cuts methane emissions by six to 30%.  


Feed additives work by altering the bacterial environment in the rumen, says Schaller. According to his company, the rumen of cows fed Agolin Ruminant contained a different makeup of bacteria and protozoa than the control cows’ rumen. 


According to Schaller, about one million cows, mostly in Europe, eat feed containing Agolin Ruminant. 


Mootral says its product reduces methane production by suppressing a high-methane-producing organism called Methanobrevibacter. The study supporting its claim was paid for by Neem Biotech, a UK-based pharmaceutical research company that helped develop Mootral.


Put to the test ...


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Where’s the potential? ...


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