30 May 2023

Millions invested to progress methane vaccine for livestock

10:33 am on 30 May 2023
New Zealand researchers working on a methane vaccine for use on farms. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand researchers working on a methane vaccine for use on farms. Photo: SUPPLIED

A methane vaccine for livestock could be a breakthrough tool for farmers to reduce agricultural emissions - but it is still at least a decade away.

Researchers have been trying to develop a livestock vaccine since around 2007, amid a greater focus on reducing emissions. Agriculture makes up nearly half of the country's total emissions.

The Centre for Climate Action joint venture will invest $2.5 million over the next year to review progress on a methane vaccine and a methane inhibitor for cattle, sheep and deer.

New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre director Dr Harry Clark said getting methane-mitigating technology onto farms will take solid science, investment and time.

"We now know an enormous amount more about how to produce a vaccine and we are now working on how to get a vaccine that's effective," he said.

"With the vaccine, this is a very complex issue because you're asking the animal to produce antibodies, in the way any vaccine does, against the bugs in the stomach that produce methane.

"We can produce antibodies, we know that we can produce large numbers of them. In laboratories, we have even been able to reduce methane, but what we haven't been able to do yet is with the complexity of the stomach of a ruminant, which contains billions of microbes, have different shapes and sizes and functions. So it is very complicated. "

He said there was also promise in the work to develop a methane inhibitor, or feed additives, which reduce activity of methanogens in the animal's digestive systems, or rumen.

New Zealand-based start-up Ruminant BioTech received a $1.8m boost from the joint venture to develop a slow-released biodegradable methane-inhibiting capsule in April.

"We've got a couple of very promising compounds which have undergone short-term animal trials in sheep. We're now pushing them into longer-term animal trials, both using sheep and cattle. And it's so far, so good," Clark said.

He said regulatory approval and the pathway to commercialisation were other obstacles for developing methane-mitigation tools.

In 2021, a feed supplement marketed to reduce indoor livestock emissions, called Bovaer, was approved for use in Brazil, one of the world's largest meat exporters. It was also approved for use on dairy cows in the European Union last year.

Clark said while the product would not work with New Zealand's traditionally outdoor grazing cows, it also took the product a decade to come to market after successful laboratory testing.

"Producing a technical breakthrough is one thing, getting it to market is equally lengthy," Clark said.

The Centre for Climate Action joint venture was set up in February to accelerate work on practical solutions to reduce agricultural emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

The joint venture is a 50:50 partnership between the government and industry, with shareholders including giants ANZCO Foods, Fonterra, Rabobank, Ravensdown, Silver Fern Farms and Synlait. Together, they have all committed around $170 million over the next four years to the joint venture.

Joint venture executive director Wayne McNee said the size of the prize for New Zealand farmers was huge.

"New Zealand's global customers are setting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, and if we can't meet these targets, export revenue that has underpinned our living standards will be under threat. We must confront this reality, and I believe we can meet the challenge.

"We're focused on scaling up efforts made to date by Kiwi farmers and agri-researchers and forging ahead with investigating new opportunities and investments."

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