The race to the methane-free cash cow

Methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, and livestock accounts for about 14.5% of climate-warming emissions worldwide, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For the past decade, researchers have been investigating the causes and remedies of methane produced by cattle. Between 2016 and 2018 the topic heated to a boil with the discovery that adding seaweed to cattle feed reduced methane burps, especially the red macroalga, Asparagopsis taxiformis.

The race is on!

Scientists all over the world are now intensively working on how to maximize the economic and environmental effectiveness. Researchers are pointing to the bromoform produced by Asparaopsis as the key compound that blocks the production of methane in cows, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals. By changing growing conditions, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, the bromoform concentration can be more than doubled.

Experts are currently debating in which stage to grow the seaweed. The practical considerations include not only the cost of cultivation but its carbon footprint. If growing the seaweed and shipping it to farms generates considerable amounts of greenhouse gas, the process could cancel out the benefits of reducing methane.

Growing Asparagopsis would likely require doing so in tanks of sterilized seawater to prevent contamination of the clingy plant material. That means using some form of energy to pump in air and nitrogen. The problem is it's going to be expensive. The ultimate goal is the most scalable and lowest cost method of production, and to achieve this some point to offshore farming rather than in tanks on land.

There is still some uncertainty with respect to the cattle as well. Will seaweeds reduce methane indefinitely, are there any negative effects to the animals, and will the cows voluntarily eat seaweed infused feed? To address these questions, Ermias Kebreab, an animal science professor at UC Davis, is currently conducting a 6 month feeding trial with cattle.

Many of the outstanding questions will be answered soon enough. Whether motivated by profits or global warming, the race is on to patent recipes for growing, scaling, and processing seaweed for animal feed.

Moss Landing Marine Labs gets funding to study macroalgae in livestock feed

As previously discussed on this blog back on October 22nd, we mentioned researchers at UC Davis discovered that methane from cows can be dramatically reduced by including some red algae in their diets.

It was just announced Friday (Oct. 26th, 2018) that Moss Landing Marine Labs was awarded Seagrant funding to investigate and culture other methane reducing alga species. This funding was a part of the $6 million invested in ocean research projects by the Ocean Protection Council.

Dr. Graham of Monterey Bay Seaweeds will be joining the research team and sharing his expertise on land based algal culturing.

Seaweed and cow gas

Cows have gotten a lot of attention lately as they were found to be one of the largest producers of methane in the USA. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than CO2 in it’s ability to heat the atmosphere, and the entire population of cows contributes just as much as cars to climate change. Cows digest their food by fermentation in their gut. Fermentation leads to gasses, which are then mostly belched out of the cow’s mouth.

This has lead many animal nutritionists to investigate alternative feed ingredients that could mitigate the amount of methane produced by cows. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found that methane emissions were reduced by 24 to 58 percent in cows that ate a type of red seaweed.

While this tech is very promising, the bottleneck is currently the lack of red algae production. Land based aquaculture is costly, while offshore aquaculture comes with more regulatory hurdles. To have seaweed integrated into feeds, massive large scale aquafarming needs to become a reality.