Frank Mitloehner: "To reduce GHG emissions, we must make farmers our partners, not enemies."

The EU is not the only place where climate targets are ambitious. Another place famous for that is California, where some great achievements in livestock emissions reductions have already been made. How? Not by forcing farmers out of business, but instead by involving and incentivizing them, confirming that they can be part of the solution to tackling climate change, not the problem. We spoke to Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at UC Davis, University of California, and director of the CLEAR Center about the big emissions debate.

California has set ambitious climate goals? How can the state achieve these goals by 2030? 

Reaching 40% methane reductions in California requires using numerous tools, including manure management tools, enteric tools, and feed additives. There are all kinds of tools with different effectiveness. Even improved efficiencies over time lead to herd size reductions because we’re now producing the same amount of milk and meat with fewer animals. So, it is a combination of different approaches. Improved efficiencies, the use of feed additives, and the use of covered lagoons to reduce manure emissions. That will get us to a reduction range of anywhere between 7.6 to 10.6 million metric tonnes. And what we need to achieve is 7.2. So, we predict that we will overachieve the reductions mandated by the State, but that only works if we have proper policy tools. So far, we have some good ones, but we are not there yet. We have good ones on the manure side. We don’t have any on enteric yet, so we have this conflict.

How did you manage to achieve these goals? Have you involved farmers?

Yes. But with a peculiarity. Mostly, around the world, they use what I call “the cane” approach: rules, regulations, fines, and maybe taxes to tell farmers they must reduce emissions. And if you don’t do it, we take the animals away or fine you. That cane approach, in my opinion, does not work. At least, it doesn’t work well. Here in California, we use “the carrot” approach, a voluntary, incentive-based approach of financially rewarding farmers for reducing emissions. We have a marketplace. If you reduce emissions, you can sell those credits you get at the market and get money for that. And so that stimulated farmers to be part of this. For example, many farmers are now covering their lagoons. They’re trapping the resulting gas, converting it into transportation fuels. That has reduced methane emissions by 2.5 million metric tonnes (MMT). I want to remind you the goal for the state is 7.2 MMTCO2e. So far, we have already achieved 2.5 for the dairy sector, so we are well on our way to achieving the goal set out by the state.

You have lived and worked in the US for a long time but are from Germany. What do you think about what is going on in Europe? In places like the Netherlands, for instance…

In the Netherlands, the recent goal was related to nitrogen emissions, mainly addressing ammonia and nitrous oxide. They planned to eliminate a third of their dairy and swine operations and buy the farmers out. They put $25 billion on the table, saying they want to buy farmers out of production. If you, as a farmer, decided to go and do that, then you were asked to sign a contract, and, on that contract, you would have declared that you would never be a farmer again, and neither would your kids. It’s not particularly attractive to anybody out there. People were on the streets. Thousands of farmers were on the streets with their tractors super upset. There were general elections where the Farmers Party became the strongest party. Those regulations and so on are now blocked. Maybe the cane approach doesn’t work, in my opinion.

Maybe this also showed that it is a very social issue and demonstrated the societal importance of livestock farming.

Well, the Dutch population was on the farmers’ side. They showed at the voting booth that they would not use draconian measures to eliminate farmers.

Back to the emissions issue. Where, in your opinion, are the main opportunities for reductions, both in intensive farming or extensive?

Reducing emissions in intensive confinement facilities is easier because you have daily access to the animals. You can, for example, feed them with feed additives. You also have daily access to the manure because it is normally concentrated, and you can store it. You can treat it. You can do something with it. Under extensive conditions where animals graze, you don’t have access to the animals daily. For example, a beef or cow-calf operation will be one where animals can access hundreds of hectares of land daily, and the farmer might see them occasionally. So, you don’t have access to the animal daily, and you certainly don’t have access to their manure because it drops where it drops. So that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything under extensive conditions, but it’s harder. The way that you can deal with emissions under extensive conditions is through low-emission breeding. There are programmes for selecting low-methane cows and low-methane animals. In the future, that will be a thing. Little capsules will likely be put into animals’ rumens in the next few years. They’re called boluses, which can contain a slow-release active ingredient that reduces methane. It’s not yet on the market everywhere, but I think it will be in the future.

So, both ways of farming can be sustainable and reduce emissions?

For sure, but let’s be very clear: there will not be a future where we eliminate one of these two general models, intensive or extensive. Both are needed to satisfy the nutritional needs and the demand that people place on animal source food. Today, in 98% of US refrigerators, you find animal-source foods. People demand animal-based foods. The point is how we produce it more sustainably and make farmers our partners in getting there, not our enemies.