Could Seaweed Cure Cowfarts? First of all, it’s Not the Farts..

October 17, 2016

Actually, misnomer, it’s not the farts we worry about, its the burps.  In any case, they are an important source of greenhouse gases.

Could there be a solution from an unexpected source?

The Conversation:

When Canadian farmer Joe Dorgan noticed about 11 years ago that cattle in a paddock by the sea were more productive than his other cows, he didn’t just rediscover an Ancient Greek and Icelandic practice.

While the Ancient Greeks didn’t have to contend with global warming, it turns out that this practice could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 21st-century livestock farming.

Cows and sheep produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Despite misconceptions, most cow methane comes from burps (90%) rather than farts (10%). Livestock produce the equivalent of 5% of human-generated greenhouse gases each year, or five times Australia’s total emissions.

Dorgan’s cattle were eating storm-tossed seaweed. Canadian researchers Rob Kinley and Alan Fredeen have since found that seaweed not only helped improve the cows’ health and growth, but also reduced their methane production by about 20%.

This and other lines of evidence led Kinley, who by then had moved to CSIRO, to team up with other CSIRO scientists and marine algae specialists at James Cook University to test a wide range of seaweeds.

They tested 20 seaweed species and found that they reduce methane production in test-tube samples from cow stomachs by anything from zero to 50%. But to do this required high amounts of seaweed (20% by weight of the sample) which was likely to present digestion issues for animals.

But when the researchers tested a particular type of seaweed collected from Queensland’s coastal waters, they thought their instruments were broken and ran the tests again. It turns out that Asparagopsis taxiformis reduces methane production by more than 99% in the lab. And unlike other seaweeds where the effect diminishes at low doses, this species works at doses of less than 2%.

Asparagopsis produces a compound called bromoform (CHBr₃), which prevents methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at the last step. This disrupts the enzymes used by gut microbes that produce methane gas as waste during digestion.

Globally, 1.3 billion people depend, partially or entirely, on livestock for their livelihoods. Livestock provides protein and micronutrients to many of the world’s 830 million people experiencing food insecurity.

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. Around 15% of feed expenses are lost in methane emissions. As feed is the primary expense for livestock farmers, this is no small problem.

It’s not just the cost, either. As wealthier consumers become more aware of environmental issues around agriculture, some are choosing to eat less meat.

If farmers could supplement their feed with seaweed, this might just help with two of the biggest challenges of our time: fighting climate change and growing more food with fewer resources.

In Australia, if we could develop a way to include seaweed feed in the Emissions Reduction Fund (as for dairy farmers), farmers might even be able to get carbon credits at the same time.

CSIRO and partners James Cook University, with funding from Meat and Livestock Australia, are currently conducting further experiments to examine how feeding seaweed to cattle affects production. These experiments aim to confirm the effects measured in the lab and in live sheep experiments. Confirmation through these experiments could create a new industry in growing seaweed as a feed supplement for livestock.

Seaweed production globally is booming, with more than 25 million tonnes (measured when wet) farmed each year, which is about double the global commercial production of lemons.

Producing enough Asparagopsis to feed 10% of the almost 1 million feedlot and 1.5 million dairy cattle in Australia would require about 300,000 tonnes a year, and millions of tonnes if it were to be scaled up globally.

With selection and breeding of seaweed varieties for higher bioactivity, this figure could come down, but perhaps only by half, and it would still require large areas of land and water. With typical seaweed production rates at 30-50 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, this suggests that to supply 10% of the Australian livestock industry will require at least 6,000 hectares of seaweed farms.

The booming seaweed industry is already aware of the pitfalls experienced in fish farming.

There are likely to be many indirect benefits, including creating alternative livelihoods in many developing countries where fishing may be in decline, and the use of seaweed as a means to filter detrimental nutrients from rivers or effluent from fish farms.

But seaweed farms more generally will be part of our increasing demands on the marine environment and will need to be part of integrated ecosystem wide management and marine spatial planning.

But for now, Joe Dorgan, of Seacow Pond in Prince Edward Island, Canada, will continue to feed seaweed to all of his cattle and reap the rewards of improved health and production.

8 Responses to “Could Seaweed Cure Cowfarts? First of all, it’s Not the Farts..”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Just to ‘head’ off the inevitable breathless diatribes about the environmental evils of eating beef:

    Cattle and methane: More complicated than first meets the (rib) eye:

  2. Aren’t more people eating less beef? I know we are. I would like to see the numbers for how methane production from cow burps compares to that from gas wells… and then ranchers need to manage pastures better so that the growth of grass offsets some of that methane production. Then there is the issue of seaweed production and harvesting and the unintended consequences of drawing too much out of the seas. How long will it be before demand causes the harvesters to decide that they need to fertilize and then use chemicals to control something else? How is Monsanto involved in this?

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      The author of the article to which I linked makes the following excellent point:

      “No, the thing that bothers me most is the way cattle emissions have been roped into the climate change debate. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is overwhelmingly the result of burning fossil fuels. If that wasn’t happening we would not be having this discussion.”

      I really am beginning to think that the Koch brothers et al are behind some of these stories that distract us from a full focus on fossil fuels. Whether it be beef, livestock farming, eating insects, tiny houses, population growth, consumerism, food waste, energy waste, GMO foods; the energy needed to manufacture RE machines, rare earth pollution – anything that can cause dissension, confusion, despair or paints a picture of a renewable energy future as a future of discomfort and deprivation; anything that breaks focus, that distracts us from intelligent action is good news for fossil fuel interests.

      There was recently a TERRIBLE decision by a California agency that just took almost all of southern California’s desert land out of any possibility for solar farm development. This is wasteland with the best insolation properties in the hemisphere. The justification was a vague reference to preserving desert habitat and species (which wasn’t needed) and was almost certainly aided and abetted by, if not completely the doing of, a sub rosa greenturfing campaign by the Kochs.

      We need to KOEOTB. Keep our eyes on the ball.

  3. redskylite Says:

    A small agricultural country like the one I reside in, that generates most of it’s electricity needs with non-fossil burning technologies, will look to reducing ghgs from transportation and farming. Plenty of research (local and international) going into cutting down agricultural methane, trouble is it comes at a cost . Today’s NASA GISS temp anomaly again shows the main acceleration in temps is happening in the Northern half of the globe , but I expect unfortunately we’ll catch up soon enough (as we have in the past).

    ‘Super grass’ to cut cow burp and fart emissions

    “It will simply create a better diet for the cow, which can utilise the feed more efficiently and therefore they don’t release as much methane when they burp.”

  4. toddinnorway Says:

    The main risk with factory-farmed animals in general, including beef and dairy cattle, is the exaggerated, prophylactic (preventative) use of antibiotics in raising and maintaining the stock. This is justified as being more cost-effective to dose ALL the animals in the lot or pen CONTINUOUSLY, instead of waiting until an individual gets an infection. This is also shown to make the animals gain mass faster.

    The problem is that it is the perfect system for developing antibiotic resistant microbes, which infect the farm workers, food handlers, hospital workers, hospitals, and finally the rest of us.

    We are staring into an abyss in which no antibiotics can cure these infections, and unfortunately, these microbes really like to hang around hospitals.

    The number of human cases of MRSA has grown EXPONENTIALLY in Denmark the last 5 years, and it should come as no surprise since they have the same overuse of antibiotics on their pig stock as in North America. So it is a problem in the EU, where there is at least some lip service paid to risk management from farm-to-fork.

    This for me is the most convincing reason to seriously reduce consumption of animal products, at least from the modern factory farms. You are blessed if you can buy antibiotic-free meat.

  5. redskylite Says:

    Again the following article I’ve attached highlights the difficulty in changing our ways to make the future brighter for those who follow.

    Suggesting people go “vegetarian” is much stronger then suggesting people reduce their meat intake. People need encouragement and compensation from governments to change their working methods especially when the have to endure extra costs.

    Many people are still not aware how serious the rising trends in ghgs, temperature ocean chemistry are, and where it could be leading to. Too many still do not take it seriously.

    Improvements already exist to reduce methane from livestock, we should embrace the technology and continue improving them.

    Inconveniences and extra costs today are better than mass migration, loss of land and much worse in the future. Proactive support is needed not more and more resistance to change.

    ‘Go vegetarian’ call angers Irish farmers

    Cattle farmers in Ireland object to former president’s suggestion that people must stop eating meat to help battle climate change.

  6. Read a book titled “How cows Save the Planet” and then we have room for more discussion.

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