Cow's head, head of Iris of Brooklyn. Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress)

A new pill designed to reduce gas emissions from beef cattle has some critics doubting its overall effectiveness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a first-of-its kind pill that reduces the amount of ammonia gas emissions in beef cattle and their manure.

 Known as Experior and developed by the animal health company Elanco, a division of the pharmaceutical Eli Lilly and Company, the FDA granted approval for its use in beef cattle on November 6, 2018.

Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the nonprofit conservation group the Center for Biological Diversity, is uncertain of the benefits this new pill will yield.

“This pill is objectively limited in scope, approved only for use in beef cattle to reduce ammonia emissions from manure ‘under specific conditions.’ (…) Its use being confined to the beef cattle sector will not reduce the release of greenhouse gases such as methane or any of the other odiferous and other noxious air pollutants,” Connor said.

Specifically, 536 beef cattle were fed the pill in an environmentally controlled confinement, findings suggest a reduction in the amount of ammonia gas produced by steers and heifers, as explained in an FDA summary.

The pill was tested in confinement for slaughter during the final 14 to 91 days on feed. The study does not produce substantial information on the impacts of animals in an entire herd or farm.

“We’re committed to supporting the development of novel animal drug products that are safe and effective, and we’re encouraged to see innovations that provide additional benefits to animals, people and the environment,” said FDA director of Veterinary Medicine, Steven M. Solomon in an FDA brief.

Though the new medication won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction in ammonia releases could be an important win for many industrial farmers and researchers.

“It is noteworthy that FDA acknowledges the serious public health and environmental harms of factory farm ammonia pollution,” said Tarah Heinzen, a staff attorney at Food & Water Watch, a D.C.-based nongovernmental organization.

Heinzen said one fix to reduce ammonia emissions is to move away from what she calls, a “factory farm model.”  It’s an agricultural model that makes use of the production of livestock in a factory-like system.

Heinzen found the expected reduction in emissions to be very small in the new pill – only 14 to 18 percent. Livestock urine and waste mixing really only amount to a small piece of the problem, she said.

“Factory farms store and mix this animal waste together in large pits or lagoons, which increases ammonia emissions,” said Heinzen.

In these poop lagoons, ammonia gases have been found to exacerbate eutrophication.

This occurs when bodies of water become too saturated with nutrients.

Too much nutrients in the water can create algae blooms, which trigger a blockage of sunlight needed for aquatic life, as explained in an FDA brief.

Ammonia gas adds to noxious odors and atmospheric haze.  In the event humans and animals come into contact with ammonia, the substance has been found to irritate the eyes, nose and throat – even causing asthma.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has relaxed on emergency release notification regulations which essentially give industrial agriculture establishments a pass on reporting air emissions from animal waste, Civil Eats reports.

There is mounting evidence that suggest concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, releasing toxic air that can threaten the health of farm workers and nearby communities.

“If the goal here is to limit these releases and reduce harm to the public and environment, there are far simpler and healthier alternatives that this industry could utilize,” said Connor.

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