As the climate crisis continues, farmers worldwide, particularly in big meat and dairy-producing countries releasing vast amounts of methane, seek solutions to slash this planet-warming gas. Methane is 80 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in warming the planet.
Without an ambitious effort to slash this planet-warming gas, other GHG, such as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions, will only continue to rise as the global population grows, hence the demand for more meat and dairy.
Fortunately, scientists have found an answer that could potentially reduce a big chunk of methane emissions cattle produce. They found the solution in a seaweed called Asparagopsis taxiformis. This pink and feathery-looking ocean plant is native to South Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.
A study, “Mitigating the carbon footprint and improving productivity of ruminant livestock agriculture using a red seaweed,” finds that adding seaweed that constituted 2% of the cow’s diet could reduce up to 90% of the methane it produces.
Cows and other ruminant livestock like sheep, buffalo, goats, deer, and camels have a four-chamber stomach that contains microbes called methanogens, responsible for digesting coarse plant materials but, as a by-product of digestion (enteric fermentation), releases methane.
The microorganism methanogens present in the cow’s stomach that produce methane is a subject of interest to researchers. Lead researcher Robert Kinley, Asparagopsis contains a property called bromoform that acts as an enzyme inhibitor. They find a correlation between the chemical bromoform in Asparagopsis and cows’ methane reduction. The chemical also does not affect other bacteria in the ruminant’s stomach. In addition to inhibiting methanogens responsible for cow’s emitting methane, the lack of methanogenesis means other digestive by-products like lactate and propionate can be created, leading to cows producing better milk (Daalder, 2021).
Check out our blog post, Climate Change Solution – Asparagopsis Seaweed Reduces Methane Emissions, to learn more.
The discovery of Asparagopsis’s ability to reduce methane, a seaweed that grows abundantly in New Zealand’s Stewart Island, has sparked more research and interest on how to harvest and potentially farm these pink feathery seaweeds sustainably.
CH4 Global was founded in 2018 and had been working in partnership with the University of Otago’s Marine Science team and NIWA to learn everything about how Asparagopsis aramata, a cold-water variety that is abundant in New Zealand and Australian oceans, and how the seaweed can be sustainably harvested in the wild, and how best to grow it to increase biomass and for long term sustainability.
The CH4 Global website says, “We focus on bringing to market high-potency, customised formulations of Asparagopsis products for ruminant animal consumption, as well as an advanced technology ecosystem for hatching, growing, processing, and drying the seaweed.”
These developments are good news for New Zealand and other countries seeking to slash their livestock’s methane emissions.
New Zealand agriculture emissions account for almost half of its total gross emissions. In 2020, the country’s gross GHG emissions were 78.8 million tonnes of CO2-e, made up of carbon dioxide (43.7%), methane (43.5%), and nitrous oxide (10.7). Of its methane emissions, 88.9% are produced by livestock (New Zealand’s Greenhouse, 2022).
Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest dairy company and exporter, tops the Environmental Protection Authority (ETS) 2022 report as the country’s top emitter for the second year running. Fossil fuel companies hold the next three spots, with the 5th, 7th, and 8th place going to the country’s meat processing companies (Gibson, 2023).
The government plans for farmers to pay the GHG tax starting in 2025. In October 2022, the government also proposed taxing agricultural GHG emissions to help achieve its climate targets. The industry has been previously omitted from the country’s Emissions Trading Scheme.
Another start-up company based in Perth, Australia, Rumin8, is working to make a dietary supplement from synthetic Asparagopsis seaweed instead of growing or farming it. Rumin8 website says, “With the cost and complexity involved in ocean-based seaweed cultivation, Rumin8 saw an opportunity to reproduce the target compound from the plant rather than mass producing the plant itself”.
“Replicating nature’s compounds, our supplements can effectively and drastically reduce enteric methane production in livestock while improving animal performance.”
“We have drawn on a decade of research and development, harnessing the active ingredient from seaweed that targets the methanogenic pathways in the rumen of livestock.”
The BBC reports that Bill Gates, billionaire and co-founder of Microsoft, turned climate change advocate, has invested in Rumin8. Gates’s firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma also back, has raised 12 million for the start-up company.
In New Zealand, Fonterra partnered with Sea Forest in 2020 to trial the Asparagopsis as a supplement feed for dairy cows to reduce their methane emissions. Sea Forest is one of the few licensed producers of Asparagopsis.
Sea Forest CEO and Founder Sam Elsom say that in 2021, the company bought an additional 30ha to increase seaweed production (A new phase, 2022).
According to Fonterra, they are now entering the next phase, which includes an agreement with the firm to get the first access to the Asparagopsis solution (A new phase, 2022).
Fonterra General Manager of Sustainability APAC Jack Holden says that the dairy giant “have an aspiration to be net zero by 2050 and are investing in R&D and partnerships to help find a solution to reducing methane emissions.”
The discovery of the seaweed Asparagopsis and its compound that can slash methane in dairy cows is a cause for optimism for big dairy industries that emit high amounts of methane.
It also helps that the seaweed grows abundantly in New Zealand and Australian ocean waters – two countries with vast dairy and meat industries that release large amounts of this potent earth-warming gas, showing that the solution to meet their climate targets are within reach.
Daalder, M. (2021, January 25). How this seaweed could slash dairy emissions. Newsroom. Retrieved from https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2020/02/19/1035951/stewart-island-seaweed-could-cut-dairy-emissions
New Zealand’s projected greenhouse gas emissions to 2050. (2022, March 10). Ministry for the Environment. Retrieved from https://environment.govt.nz/facts-and-science/climate-change/new-zealands-projected-greenhouse-gas-emissions-to-2050
Gibson, E. (2023, January 19). New Zealand’s biggest climate polluters, ranked. Stuff. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/130991637/new-zealands-biggest-climate-polluters-ranked
Liang, A. (2023, January 24). Climate change: Bill Gates backs Australian start-up targeting cow burps. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-64382400
A new phase begins in Fonterra seaweed trial aiming to reduce on-farm emissions. (2022, April 29). Fonterra. Retrieved from https://www.fonterra.com/nz/en/our-stories/articles/a-new-phase-begins-in-fonterra-seaweed-trial-aiming-to-reduce-on-farm-emissions.html