These Face Masks for Cows Have Nothing to Do With Coronavirus
(Bloomberg) -- Agriculture is second only to energy in its contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions, and raising animals—especially cattle—drives almost half the industry’s footprint. That hasn’t been good news for beef and dairy producers, who are being abandoned by climate-conscious investors and consumer alike. Francisco Norris, however, sees it as an opportunity.
Norris is a co-founder of Zelp Ltd., short for Zero Emissions Livestock Project, a U.K.-based startup developing a wearable device for cows that may be able to reduce their methane emissions by up to 60%. “We need to do everything we can to reduce the problem,” Norris says. “We understand that the best position for us to help address this issue is here, producing this kind of technology.”
Cows, sheep, and other ruminants are able to subsist on grasses and hay thanks to their unique digestive systems, which use microbes to break down tough fibers human stomachs wouldn’t be able to handle. Those microbes also produce methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. With 1.5 billion cows on the planet, the impact is huge, likely contributing as much as 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Contrary, perhaps, to most people’s assumption, cows release only a tiny portion of that methane through flatulence. The rest—about 95%—comes out as burps, and the majority of those get released through the nose.
That’s where Zelp comes in. Made from a bendable, rubber-like plastic and weighing less than 100 grams (3.5 ounces), the mask attaches to a standard bovine halter and rests just above the cow’s nostrils. A set of fans powered by solar-charged batteries sucks up the burps and traps them in a chamber with a methane-absorbing filter. The chamber is a bit like the catalytic converter on a car: once the filter is saturated, a chemical reaction turns the methane (CH₄) into carbon dioxide (CO₂).
At the moment the company says its product cuts an individual cow’s daily emissions from burps by about a third, and Norris hopes to raise that before Zelp becomes available commercially next year. But peer-reviewed studies will be needed to support Zelp’s emissions-reductions claims, says Michael Van Amburgh, a professor of animal science at Cornell University who specializes in dairy and livestock.
Right now the fully working prototype is too large to put around a cow’s neck, and the chemical conversion is only possible in tightly controlled settings. But the commercial version, Norris says, will be light and rugged enough for the animal to wear it for life. (He wouldn’t allow reporters to see or photograph the working prototype to protect trade secrets.)
Lack of peer review won’t stop Zelp from going to market, Norris says. On its release, Zelp will join a growing roster of solutions to the cow burp problem, mostly aimed at cutting down on methane production inside the cow. These have seen little success so far.
Few, if any of Zelp’s competitors have landed on wearable technology as an answer. “Certainly anything that could cut methane emissions significantly would be great,” says Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant in Harwell, England. “It is something that retailers and processors are thinking about as well, and so therefore it’s coming to the front of all farmer mindsets that this is something that we’re going to have to deal with.”
Norris and his co-founder, his brother Patricio, are the sons of Argentine cattle ranchers, and are intimately familiar with the obstacles ranchers face. Their design speaks to that intuition. A built-in accelerometer and GPS sensor, for instance, can be used to track the cow’s activity for signs of distress. An anxious dairy cow will produce less milk, so it’s in everyone’s best interest that the final product be as comfortable as possible.
After raising $1.2 million last year, Zelp’s 11-person team began preparing to submit the product to climate responsibility certification bodies such as Bureau Veritas and Control Union. After it receives that stamp of approval, the company will need to convince farmers to become paying customers, a challenge given that livestock farms operate on tight budgets at the best of times. With the drop in demand due to the novel coronavirus, those budgets are now squeezed to their limit.
At a starting annual subscription fee of $45 per cow, Zelp is a pricey solution, especially compared to things like feed supplements that are less effective at reducing emissions but typically cost half as much or less. Access to tracking data will come with an additional fee. “Dairy producers and beef producers work off of very small margins, thus any investment would need to show a return,” Van Amburgh says.
The company is testing the technology with ABP Food Group, one of Europe’s largest beef suppliers, and is in talks with several U.S. meat processors to deploy the product on their suppliers’ farms. Norris is betting farmers will be able to recoup their Zelp-related costs by having their “climate-smart” products certified and sold to processors at a premium. That premium would then, of course be passed on to customers. Zelp cites its own surveys, done in the U.S. and the U.K., to show that customers may be willing to pay more for lower-emission beef—as much as 30% more.
One cold morning in mid-February, two cows outfitted with Zelps milled around a research farm in Hertfordshire, 20 miles north of London, while members of Norris’s team observed their behavior. They were wearing non-working prototypes, meant to test whether the mask’s design allowed the cows to eat normally and stayed on when friends came by for a cheerful nose rub.
“The problem will not be solved without radical solutions,” Norris says. “Some consumers will choose to go vegan, and some will choose to eat less beef. We want to make sure we can give people the choice to purchase beef and dairy products with a significantly lower climate impact.”
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