Scientists have spent years coaxing a fussy red seaweed called asparagopsis into cultivation. Their plan: to feed the underwater plant to cows and sheep in an effort to make the animals less environmentally destructive.
The belching and flatulence of livestock release large quantities of methane and make up around 4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s equivalent to the amount contributed by Japan and Germany combined.
Seaweed alters bovine digestion, reducing the methane an animal produces by 80% or more, according to scientists at the University of California, Davis, and Australia’s national science agency. It is one of the plants and chemicals that meat and dairy businesses are experimenting with to reduce their contribution to global warming.
These industries face competition from companies like Impossible Foods Inc. and
Beyond Meat Inc.,
which make plant-based burgers and have captured a growing share of the protein market by appealing to climate-conscious consumers. Under pressure, the livestock industry is trying to win back this group of buyers.
Burger King began selling reduced-emissions burgers made from cows fed lemongrass at outlets in five U.S. cities in July. The aim was to fight climate change and “improve consumer perceptions of the beef industry overall.” The campaign attracted controversy, in part for relying on a single small-scale study to claim that cattle fed lemongrass emit up to 33% less methane. The company says it is gathering additional data and is pushing ahead with the program.
Corporate interest has buoyed businesses racing to bring new methane-reducing feed to market.
Asparagopsis seaweed brims with a bioactive compound called bromoform that blocks a methane-producing enzyme in the guts of cows. Studies suggest it is safe for cattle to consume at low doses, though scientists say more long-term studies on cattle health are needed. Researchers at Australian startup Sea Forest say they have homed in on the climatic conditions that trigger it to release spores and reproduce, which could allow them to scale up production over the coming years. Other ventures are growing the plant in Vietnam and Hawaii.
“A lot of people are trying to crack the code for how to cultivate,” says Sea Forest co-founder Sam Elsom, a former fashion executive now working with a team of scientists. “It’s not science fiction.”
One challenge is how to nurture the seaweed through distinct life stages. In one stage, it resembles a small red pompom and is grown in ponds or water tanks. The spores it produces grow into plants with stalks and branches—a second stage—that are placed in ocean waters for cultivation. The cycle is complete when this plant in turn releases spores that take the pompom-like form.
Sea Forest is working to grow the seaweed across these different life cycles, while also pushing ahead with a simpler approach. It chops up seaweed stalks and places the cuttings in the ocean where they regrow into full plants.
Its crop has been contracted out to companies. New Zealand dairy company
Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd.
will trial its effect on cattle methane emissions in the coming weeks. Kingston Farms, a Tasmania, Australia-based wool grower, is feeding the seaweed to sheep whose wool will be harvested for a coming line of carbon-neutral sweaters or other woolen clothing items created by Australian fashion brand M.J. Bale.
“If we can make this work in a microcosm, then the wool-growing industry will be able to do it,” says Jonathan Lobban, head of brand for M.J. Bale. “Hopefully it’s a win for the environment and a win for the industry and a win for us as a brand.”
For Simon Cameron, Kingston Farms’ owner, the project has meant mixing tiny portions of seaweed into a barley diet for 25 sheep. He is working with researchers at the University of Tasmania to compare the seaweed-fed sheep’s weight, health and wool quality with a control group fed a diet without seaweed, to check for side effects.
While most of Mr. Cameron’s sheep graze on pasture, they also need to be fed by trough with their daily seaweed dose mixed in. “Our little trial is quite labor-intensive,” Mr. Cameron says.
Ermias Kebreab, a professor in the department of animal science at UC Davis, who has conducted tests on the seaweed and other methane-inhibiting substances, says it is worth pursuing. “I have never seen any additive that could reduce methane emissions by so much,” he says.
Dr. Kebreab is a scientific adviser to a Hawaii startup producing the red seaweed and to a Swiss company offering a cattle-feed supplement derived from garlic. He recently concluded a study that found that steers fed a 0.5% seaweed diet reduced methane emissions by as much as 80%. Feeding them half that amount achieved a 70% reduction, the study—which hasn’t yet been published—showed.
Part of the research involved enrolling 112 participants in a beef taste-test. They couldn’t distinguish between beef from cows that had been fed the seaweed and those that hadn’t, Dr. Kebreab says.
The results supported the conclusion of another study published this year in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a peer-reviewed academic journal that focuses on sustainability research. Conducted by researchers at Australia’s national science agency, it found that beef cattle fed a diet that was 0.2% red seaweed produced 98% less methane than cattle in a control group.
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Scientists caution, however, that the seaweed may not be a straightforward solution. A recent study found that cattle fed asparagopsis saw methane emissions drop 65% but produced 6.5% less milk than a control group—a potentially concerning result, says co-author Alexander Hristov, a distinguished professor of dairy nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.
Other published research has found that cattle fed high doses of asparagopsis consume less food. And cattle that eat less tend to fatten more slowly, hurting farm profitability, says Jan Dijkstra, an associate professor at the Animal Nutrition Group at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.
On the other hand, some studies, including the most recent one by Dr. Kebreab, have shown negligible impact on cattle weight, or that cattle fed the seaweed gained weight more quickly than cattle not fed the seaweed. Dr. Dijkstra says more research is needed on the seaweed’s impact on animal health and its effects on meat- and milk-production.
Dr. Dijkstra has done research into another feed additive—a synthetic chemical compound called Bovaer—that was funded by the Royal DSM NV, the Dutch multinational that produces it. When fed to cattle, the compound reduces methane emissions by around 30%, according to the company and independent researchers who have studied the product.
Some studies have also found significantly higher methane reductions. The company has filed for authorization to begin selling its product in the European Union.
Another company, Mootral SA, a Swiss agriculture technology firm, offers a feed supplement derived from garlic and citrus extracts that can reduce methane emissions by up to 38%, according to peer-reviewed and published studies.
As for asparagopsis, the focus is on finding ways to cultivate at sufficient scale to make a dent in global cattle emissions. It is too early to know what seaweed-enhanced feed might cost, but it is possible farmers could offset higher feed costs with improved cattle feed conversion or through carbon credits in certain markets.
“It can be potentially a game changer,” says Dr. Dijkstra. “The jury is still out.”
Write to Jon Emont at email@example.com
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