A methane vaccine for cows being developed in New Zealand could be a big game changer for animal emissions globally, according to the chairman of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, Professor Jeremy Hill.
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New Zealand research into a methane vaccine for cows could be a “game changer” for animal emissions globally.

Hill, who is Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer, says the methane vaccine it is working on aims to introduce antibodies into a cow’s saliva which then pass to the animal’s rumen, or stomach, and bind with the methanogens which convert hydrogen into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“That would be the big breakthrough because in theory a vaccine could be implemented in any animal production system,” Hill told reporters at Fonterra’s research and development facility in Palmerston North earlier this month.

“This would make a real game changing difference to the world.”

The world’s agricultural food system produces between 20 and 30 per cent of global emissions. New Zealand accounts for about 0.16 per cent of global emissions, half of which come from agriculture, and a quarter from dairy.

To help New Zealand reduce its emissions, the consortium of livestock industry groups has with matching government funding invested about $85 million into research and development of emissions mitigation options for livestock farmers since 2003, according to its submission to the Climate Change Commission.

Research on a methane vaccine has cost between $4m to $5m a year for more than a decade, with Fonterra contributing up to $1m of that, Hill says.

A methane vaccine would be a real game changer, not only for the New Zealand and global dairy sector but for livestock-based food production as it would probably apply across multiple ruminant species such as cows, beef cattle, sheep and deer, Hill says.

A vaccine could also be used across different types of farming systems and unlike other potential solutions, would not be reliant on a certain type of feeding system.

Hill cited the example of India where 70 million smallholders own a few cows each. Many other potential solutions for mitigating greenhouse gases would be difficult to implement in that environment, but a vaccine could easily be added to the country’s existing large vaccine programme, he said.

However, developing the vaccine is “very challenging” because of the mechanism used, he says.

“We have proven in principle that there is nothing to stop us being able to do this. We can develop the right antibodies, and we can get animals to produce them. But getting that to work so that we get a consistently large amount of antibodies that then go into the saliva to the rumen is still the hurdle that we are trying to overcome.

“So it’s promising, but by no means certain we can do it yet.

“It would be the biggest game changer if we can get it to work, but it’s very challenging.”

Hill says the consortium wants to give research into the vaccine “a big push” over the next five years using the best resources it can.

He says a lot of work is being done at the moment with both the industry and the Government collaborating to develop priorities for greenhouse gas mitigation technologies, and it is “highly likely” that methane vaccine development will remain a priority building off the work the consortium has been leading.

The Climate Change Commission noted in its final report released last month that government funding supporting research and development in the agricultural sector will end in the next few years.

The consortium’s contract with the government ends next month, and government investment into research and development focused on agricultural biogenic methane emissions is secured out to 2025, but there is no long-term plan beyond then, the report says.

“A clear long-term plan that lays out where investment should be targeted is needed, including mechanisms to implement that plan,” the commission says.

Hill says significant resources have been devoted to the development of vaccines for Covid-19, and those groups who weren’t successful producing a commercialised Covid vaccine could now be available for other projects.

“There’s a lot more capacity that we can tap into currently so now is the time to strike and harness some of those resources that have been working on, for example, Covid vaccine development,” Hill says.

As well as Fonterra, the consortium’s shareholders include Beef and Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ, Deer Industry NZ, AgResearch, Fertiliser Association, Landcorp and PGG Wrightson Seeds.

Associate members of the consortium include the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment, the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere, and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre.

Victorian scientists in Australia will be working on methods to reduce the environmental footprint of the Australian dairy cow and to create a more profitable and sustainable dairy sector.

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