Penn State-led project aimed at reducing greenhouse gases from livestock

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture rise worldwide, a Penn State researcher is leading a new international project aimed at helping to reduce such emissions from livestock production.

Formally titled the Global Network for the Development of Nutrition-related Strategies for Mitigation of Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Ruminant Livestock, the $1.65 million initiative involves a consortium of researchers from nine countries whose goal is to compile scientific data and develop practices that promise to address the problem.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that animal production accounts for up to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to project leader Alexander Hristov, professor of dairy nutrition in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State.

"In some countries, such as New Zealand, agriculture accounts for more than 45 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions," Hristov said. "In the Unites States, however, livestock accounts for only about 3 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, because the energy and transportation sectors are much larger contributors."

Globally, he warned, the problem is expected to get worse as personal incomes rise in developing countries, leading to more demand for animal-derived foods. He explained that developing countries may be home to many animals, but their production typically is much lower than in North America and Europe.

"A cow here may produce 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of milk annually, but in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, for example, production is a fraction of that," Hristov said. "By increasing production, we can supply the rising demand while maintaining or reducing the levels of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat or milk produced.

"We need to look at genetics, reproductive efficiency and scientific feeding," he noted. "The Global Network project is focused on nutritional strategies for reducing emissions through new feed formulations and by using different feed additives."

A major objective of the Global Network is to create a database of existing studies that can serve as a clearinghouse for the latest science addressing the issue. Hristov said the project will solicit research studies and data -- both published and unpublished -- from scientists around the world and not just from those involved in this consortium.

"There is a large body of existing nutrition-related greenhouse gas mitigation data that is not well organized," he said. "We hope scientists will share individual animal data, which will help in creating effective prediction models for greenhouse gas emissions."

Some collaborators in the consortium also will conduct new research designed to fill knowledge gaps in the database, said Hristov, who studies phytonutrients as methane mitigation agents in dairy cows. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane has 23 times the potential to influence global climate change, he said. "Any cut in methane emissions would be beneficial."

Among other Global Network objectives are to develop guidelines for conducting experiments designed to evaluate nutritional strategies for emission mitigation; to develop and evaluate models for predicting methane emissions and nitrogen excretions under various nutritional, animal and farm-management scenarios; and to identify and recommend mitigation technologies that are both practical and feasible to implement in various ruminant livestock production systems.

Project output will be of interest to governments, nongovernmental organizations, extension networks, livestock-sector professionals and producers, Hristov said.

The four-year project is funded through the Europe-based Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change. Funding comes from governmental agencies in the researchers' respective home countries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture is supporting the U.S. portion of the project, which also includes scientists from Ohio State University and the University of California, Davis.

Other countries that are home to Global Network researchers include France, Spain, Finland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand. Dairy Management Inc., a trade organization headquartered in Chicago, will host the project's research database through its Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

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Last Updated March 11, 2014