Kowbucha™ - A Potential Methane-Reducing Method for Cows

Innovation

We talked to Fonterra Director of Category Strategy and Innovation Mark Piper about the new Kowbucha™ initiative.

12 October 2020

6 min

#Global #Sustainability #New Zealand #Innovation

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the popularity of Kombucha, a fermented, often flavoured, tea-based drink. Consumers flock to Kombucha for its perceived health benefits for consumers. However, Mark Piper and his team at Fonterra are researching how Kowbucha™ could be the next methane-reducing method for farmers.

Fonterra trademarked, Kowbucha™, to describe the work they are doing using dairy fermentation and cultures to attempt to reduce methane production in cows, and it’s so far showing promising results.

We interviewed Mark Piper, Director of Category Strategy and Innovation at Fonterra, to further explain this Kowbucha™ initiative.

Q. What does sustainability mean to you, and how does your team work to support Fonterra’s sustainability goals?

Personally, sustainability is something that is very front of mind for me and something that we focus on at home and with our kids. From a Fonterra perspective, sustainability is critical to us and is a core part of Fonterra’s overall strategy. Our strategy integrates sustainability into our thinking and takes a triple-bottom-line approach to our Co-operative way of doing things; Healthy People, Healthy Environment, Healthy Business. 

Strong, healthy local environments and communities are the foundation for sustainable, profitable dairy farming.

Mark Piper | Director of Category Strategy & Innovation

Fonterra & NZMP are committed to making a positive impact by having a regenerative mindset, reducing environmental impacts and working in partnership with others.

My team have two key areas of focus:

  • Green House Gas (GHG) Mitigation
  • Continuous improvement in the efficiency of our plants

When we look at GHG mitigation in particular, our fundamental principles are that it has to be good for the cow, good for people and have a true positive impact to our environment. 

Cows grazing

Q. You and your team are currently looking into ways to reduce methane production in cows – why is this important? 

Due to our farming practices, New Zealand is already a world-leader in low emissions per litre of milk produced. Cows in New Zealand produce only a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas production, at less than 0.04%.

However, despite the efficiency of New Zealand’s dairy production, animal agriculture has a comparatively larger impact on New Zealand’s emissions at a country level. If we can solve the problem of cows producing methane, then New Zealand could reduce its total footprint by up to a further 20%.

Animal agriculture emissions is a challenge for every country globally and scientists all around the world are working on ideas to reduce the methane produced by livestock, with Fonterra collaborating on a number of these.

Any breakthrough we have in New Zealand would also greatly benefit the global industry – and further reduce emissions globally.

Mark Piper | Director of Category Strategy & Innovation

Q. Why do you think it’s important for industry leaders, like Fonterra, to share our practices & knowledge with the wider industry?

Overall climate change and sustainability is a global challenge and to really make a difference in the world we need to work across boundaries to collaborate on solutions.

As Fonterra already produces comparably low-emission dairy in New Zealand, we want to lean into this, learn more about it, and share best practices globally.  

Two men outside factory

Q. So, what is Kowbucha™ and why do you think it could reduce methane emissions? 

To explain Kowbucha™ I must firstly explain what Methanogens are.

Methanogens are the microorganisms found in the guts of animals that produce methane. These microorganisms in a cow’s digestive system are the core reason cows produce methane over their lifetime. If we target these ‘bad-bugs’, we can target the root of the problem. 

Kowbucha™ is the name we have given to the fermentations we are developing to attempt to “switch-off” these bad bugs and stop the process of methane production within the cow itself.

Mark Piper | Director of Category Strategy & Innovation

The concept of Kowbucha™ was a result of our team combining consumer insights, our extensive knowledge of dairy fermentation, and our massive library of cultures to see if we could come up with something new.

In recent years we have seen a rise in consumer demand for fermented beverages and products with ‘good-bacteria’ cultures and ‘gut-health promoting’ claims. Consumers flock to these products to help them (and their pets) lead a healthier life. We thought, if dairy cultures & fermentation are valuable in the consumer market for gut-health, how can we use Fonterra’s one-hundred years of dairy fermentation expertise to leverage these benefits for our cows’ gut-health?

We also have one of the world’s largest dairy culture collections to call on, developed over decades of innovating and producing our cheeses, yoghurts, probiotics and flavours. So, we had a really good foundation to work from on this new project.

All of this has led our scientists to work with AgResearch Ltd and the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium. Collectively we are working to optimise Kowbucha™ to try to create a cost effective and practical solution to reduce methane production in cows.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the process of producing Kowbucha™, or is this top secret?

This is still top secret sorry, but what I can tell you is that we are approaching this in a way that we hope will continue to improve overall animal health and wellbeing.

Q. How do you see this work benefitting NZMP customers?

We need to take responsibility as food & beverage manufacturers to play a positive role in the future of our environment, through sustainable actions.

Globally, consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the products they purchase and use. 

Food & Beverage manufacturers are looking to make and validate claims on their carbon footprint and adopt more sustainable practices.

Fonterra already has fantastic sustainability credentials and we can provide sustainability claims on pack today which provide brands with a commercial advantage. As we continue to improve our environmental footprint these claims will get stronger and stronger.

Cows grazing

Q. What have the initial results been, and what’s next?

Our primary focus has to been to identify fermentations that may have a positive impact, so we have started with very controlled lab-based research.

It’s very early days but initial results with Kowbucha™ have been promising, with a few fermentations showing good results in the lab.

The next step for us is to test these in an artificial rumen (cow’s stomach) to see if we can repeat any success.  We are getting results every month as we continue to do testing, but it is likely to be 12 months before we are in a position to introduce this to live cows. On a research basis as we need to ensure that anything, we introduce has an overall positive impact for the cow. As mentioned at the very start, our fundamental principles are that it has to be good for the cow, good for people and have a true positive impact to our environment.  

The interviewee

Mark Piper

Director of Category Strategy & Innovation

In the 27 years Mark has been with Fonterra he has worked in the manufacture of casein and cheese, coordinated supply chain activities for sales into Japan and Korea, managed a technical team for Fonterra Japan and was a Product Group Manager for Fonterra’s global cheese business. Mark moved to Chicago in 2010 and was the Regional Director Ingredients Americas for Fonterra before relocating back to New Zealand in January 2016 to head up the Transformation Office for Fonterra.

In February 2017, Mark relocated to Palmerston North to head up Fonterra’s Global Research & Development teams. Mark was appointed to a new role of Director Category, Strategy and Innovation in December 2019. Mark and his team work closely with Fonterra’s regional teams to deliver on our strategy through category management and innovation.

Mark has a Diploma in Dairy Technology and has completed the Global Advanced Management Program at Kellogg Business School (Northwestern University).