Moo To You Too: Can Caribbean Grow Magic Seaweed That Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Cows?

A report by Jonathan Mason for the St Kitts and Nevis Observer.

Cows belch—a lot. And their burps (as well as those of other ruminants) make them the top polluters of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The urgency to find a solution picked up in 2016 when California passed a landmark bill that mandates a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030. The state’s biggest contributors of methane gas are its 1.7 million dairy cows and 650,000 beef cows.

As pressure to reduce heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere mounts, an increasing body of research has shown that seaweed added to cattle feed could dramatically reduce livestock’s impact on the planet.

Livestock methane production is not just an environmental problem. All this burped methane is wasted energy that could be going to make animals produce more food, and cows spend about 10% of their energy producing methane.

The challenge: where will the enormous supply of seaweed—enough to impact millions of cows—come from? And at what cost?

Now, a new company — FutureFeed — says it has a solution. The Queensland, Australia-based startup was established recently by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the Australian government’s scientific research agency.Freeze-dried and fed to cows as a supplement, asparagopsis eliminated methane “below the detection limits of our instruments,” in tests, says Michael Battaglia, a research director for CSIRO and a director of FutureFeed. When the seaweed was first trialed by scientists, it performed so well that they assumed their equipment was broken, he adds.

The livestock sector contributes 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. And when it comes to methane gas, livestock’s contribution is much bigger: 44 percent.

Most of the methane produced by cows is a by-product of their digestion, known as enteric fermentation, a process during which microbes in the cow’s digestive tract decompose and ferment food. A much smaller percentage of the methane comes from cows’ manure.

If 10% of the livestock industry used the Future Feed supplement, it would have the same positive climate effect as removing 100 million cars from the road.

The seaweed needed to make the bovine dietary supplement is called  Aspargopsis taxiformis thrives in tropical and subtropical climates and can be found in Australian coastal waters, predominantly in northern Queensland and Western Australia.

Asparagopsis armata thrives in temperate climates and is found naturally in the Mediterranean Sea and Tasman Sea. The species of Asparagopsis used in FutureFeed will depend on the location and climate of the seaweed farm that FutureFeed will be sourced from. As a global supply chain is planned for distributing FutureFeed, the specific Asparagopsis species used may vary at different locations all over the world.FutureFeed attributes the seaweed’s methane-busting clout to a compound called bromoform, which stop microbes in the cows’ guts producing the gas. Many seaweeds contain small quantities of bromoform, explains Battaglia, but asparagopsis is unusual because it stores large amounts in special cells on the surface of its fronds.

The science is clear, but a massive hurdle remains — there isn’t enough asparagopsis.

Until recently, asparagopsis grew only in the wild and had to be hand-picked by divers. As its potential for the livestock sector becomes evident, a fledgling industry is gearing up to grow it on a commercial scale.

Another Australian company is working on the problem. Sam Elsom is founder and COO of Sea Forest. Based on the east coast of Tasmania, the company is pioneering the cultivation of high-bromoform asparagopsis and is working closely with FutureFeed to commercialize the seaweed as a livestock feed supplement, he says.

Elsom has secured a 100 hectare marine lease, where he grows asparagopsis on ropes. “The seaweed is seeded onto the lines which are then deployed into the ocean,” he explains.

The seaweed species asparagopsis will be commercially farmed for use as a livestock supplement to reduce domestic methane carbon emissions by 10 per cent. Seaweed farms estimated to be a $1.5 billion industry in five years.

But even with the best technology, will it be possible to grow enough asparagopsis to make a significant dent in the methane problem?

Battaglia estimates that Australia would need 35,000 tons of dried seaweed a year to feed asparagopsis to all its dairy cows and cattle on feedlots — intensive feeding yards where they are fattened up before slaughter.

At present, Sea Forest expects to harvest 500 tons of dried asparagopsis a year at its pilot facility and has plans to triple the annual harvest by 2022, says Elsom. Cows spend around 10% of their energy generating methane, says Battaglia. FutureFeed will conduct full-scale trials later this year, to gather data on enhanced growth rates.

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