Can feeding seaweed to cows helps reduce global warming?
Researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and James Cook University have found that feeding seaweed to cows can drastically reduce their output of methane gas, helping to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.
Methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas with much more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide – and both cows and sheep produce a lot of it. Your average cow emits between 150 g and 300 g of methane a day (through both ends, mind you, most of it by burping). One cow makes as much greenhouse gas as a car, and worldwide, cattle alone make up a whopping five per cent of the global warming tally.
Add to this the fact that methane gas production is a significant waste in agriculture, as farmers have to spend more on feed to offset the loss in methane gas, and it’s safe to say that interest is high in any tool or technique which might limit the cow’s methane output.
Enter cattle farmer Joe Dorgan from Seacow Pond, Prince Edward Island, who eleven years ago noticed his cows were more productive when grazed in a paddock by the sea, giving them a chance to munch on seaweed. The news travelled to Rob Kinley, Dalhousie-educated researcher now working in Australia at CSIRO, who tested the seaweed on an artificial cow’s stomach to see how it affected digestion and absorption. Kinley found an encouraging 20 per cent reduction in the production of methane when seaweed was added to the mix.
But it wasn’t until Kinley tested a red seaweed found on Queensland’s coastline called Asparagopsis taxiformis that the real surprise emerged -the seaweed cut methane production by 99 per cent, virtually eliminating the problem. So far, the cow-based results have only been created in the lab, but research has already shown that Asparagopsis-laced feed given to sheep reduces their methane production by up to 80 per cent.
“That particular seaweed has one chemical that it uses as a natural defence against predation in the ocean. We’ve discovered that it works quite well in the process of methane production,” says Kinley, in conversation with the National Post.
Kinley thinks that using seaweed to cut down methane production only makes sense. Now the trick will be to produce the stuff in mass quantities to be made available to agriculture. “Our number one barrier to making a commercial product for this is to supply enough seaweed for cows,” says Kinley. “We need the money to continue with the research but also to develop technology to cultivate this stuff at large scale. We need seaweed farms to come on board with this.”
Globally, the seaweed industry is doing very well. A 2016 industry report put the sector’s growth at 8.9 per cent, with the seaweed market projected to hit $22 billion by 2024. Currently, major seaweed markets are found in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.
And, finally, you know that everything’s coming up seaweed when researchers at Oregon State University have cultivated a highly nutritious strain that tastes like bacon. It’s about time.