The billion-dollar business with burping cows

Two Swiss companies are leading in the development of tools against methane gas, with which ruminants contribute to global warming

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Source: Sonntagszeitung and Tagesanzeiger Online
Author: Pirmin Schilliger
Date: 18/11/17 and 19/11/17

Cows are major polluters. If they digest grass, methane – a gas, which is emitted by animals through burping – is generated as a waste product in the rumen. A dairy cow thereby emits 500 liters of methane into the air. In total, around 100 million tons escape into the atmosphere every single year coming from all cattle around the world. In the atmosphere, methane works as an aggressive greenhouse gas, which is twenty times stronger than the same amount of carbon dioxide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that animal husbandry accounts for 15 percent of the total emission of greenhouse gases worldwide.

The question of how this can be stopped, without consumers needing to give up on milk, cheese and beef fillets, has concerned scientists and development departments all around the world for more than ten years. Here, two Swiss companies are nose ahead: biotech company Zaluvida, which is based in Rolle VD and DSM Nutritional Products in Kaiseraugst AG. Both have a promising substance in the pipeline, which are said to curb the gas development in the cow’s stomachs.

At Zaluvida, the methane blocker is named Mootral. It is a purely natural product. It is derived from Allicin, which can be found in garlic, and orange peels. Already today, Mootral is available as a feed supplement in all important markets. “We will start the targeted and commercial marketing in summer 2018”, spokesperson Daniel de Carvalho said. As a natural substance, Mootral has the major advantage that it does not have to overcome great legal hurdles for its market approval.

A billion-dollar business is looming for the company

Not yet as far as Zaluvida is the DSM Nutritional Products, the Swiss animal feed subsidiary of the Dutch chemical group DSM. Its feed supplement, developed in the laboratories of Kaiseraugst AG, reduces the methane emission of cows by at least 30 percent. In tangible terms, the therein located molecule 3-NOP hampers an enzyme in the stomach, which is responsible for the methane production. Maik Kindermann, research director of the project “Clean Cow” in Kaiseraugst recalls that a number of independent studies, such as one coming from the Max Planck Institute, have verified its effectiveness. The substance is said to have no harmful side effects when entering the food chain – neither for the human, nor for the animal. However, as it is a chemically synthesized molecule, the approval process is more time-consuming than for the natural Mootral. “It is the goal of DSM to introduce the product to the market in 2019”, spokesperson André van der Elsen said.

Experts recognize 3-NOP’s and Mootral’s sales potential of more than 3 billion dollars. Rudolf Thauer, microbiologist of the Max Planck Institute estimates a market volume of 17 billion dollars for methane reducing feed supplements. His conservative estimate is based on the assumption that around half of the worldwide existing 3.5 billion cattle, sheep and goats will be provided with “anti-burpers” – namely at a price of 10 dollars per year and animal. The business goal of Zaluvida is more conservative. According to Daniel de Carvalho, the company wants to realize around three billion Euro with Mootral within a period of ten years. “We strive for a market penetration of just under 10 percent for the worldwide cow population.”


Experts expect a clear distribution of roles

Thus, there will be enough leeway for other providers of similar feed supplements. Experts would not be surprised, if it would someday come to a role distribution, with Mootral from Zaluvida as a feed supplement for biological livestock farming and 3-NOP from DSM as a feed supplement for conventional livestock farming. This is why small Zaluvida, having its nose ahead with its 300 employees, has not yet evoked a sense of nervousness at the multi-billion group DSM.

Or has it? At DSM one cannot refrain from a side blow to its competitor. “In contrast to our feed supplement, we miss studies for Mootral, which can provide a detailed proof for the effectiveness of the product”, André van der Elsen said. But the people from Zaluvida reject this accusation. De Carvalho clarified: “Mootral has been tested in more than twenty studies, with the result that the substance has shown the highest effectiveness of all substances under development or already available.”

Both companies agree that financial incentives of the authorities could decisively accelerate the market launch. The Canadian province Alberta for example, has been reimbursing farmers for several years, which have undertaken measures to reduce the high quantity of greenhouse gases in the beef production. Thereby, methane and nitrous oxides, which escape from the ground during the cultivation of forage crops, are converted in CO2 equivalents.


State incentives are not necessary

“In accordance with a similar model, farmers could be rewarded for using our new feed supplement”, Van der Elsen said. However, he is convinced that methane blockers will sooner or later prevail even without state incentives – particularly as they have a quite desirable side effect: as less energy is lost during the digestion process, the cow can get by with less food – a saving for farmers, which should easily offset the costs for the new feed supplements.

Zaluvida and DSM already prepare themselves, so that they will not be caught by surprise by the abrupt rising demand. “The necessary resources for Mootral are already available in quantities, which allow us to feed all cows in the world”, Daniel de Carvalho said. In addition, the feed supplement is said to be easily integrated into the existing feed production and supply chain. DSM stated that as a global enterprise, it is able to boost the production of 3-NOP at any time.