You may have read or heard about methane as it relates to the dairy and beef industries. Methane is a simple hydrocarbon gas and a large contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. Methane is naturally occurring on Earth; it is the main component of natural gas and is produced by ruminants as well as by the decay of organic waste.
Agriculture contributes 36% of methane emissions in the United States, mostly from livestock. As the climate continues to change, many researchers and governments are looking for ways to reduce output without affecting production of livestock. One promising solution comes from the most unlikely of sources: the ocean.
Several research groups around the world have come to the same conclusion: feeding just a small amount of seaweed to cows could cut methane emissions by 80%. Work being done in the United States, Canada, and Australia has come to the same conclusion: a bit of seaweed could do the trick.
In the United States, UC Davis researchers fed dairy cows small amounts of seaweed a few years ago, and discovered that methane output could be reduced with no taste coming through in milk. In 2021 they published the results of a five-month long trial where beef cattle were fed three ounces of seaweed daily and grew at the same rate as the control group, but burped 82% less methane. Another taste test proved that there was no change in the taste of the beef, which might be crucial for consumers.
Another trial, this one in Prince Edward Island, Canada, found similar results. North Atlantic Organics takes seaweed that has been tossed onto beaches by the waves, dries it out, and markets it as a feed additive for minerals and nutrients as well as a 20% reduction in methane production. The cows don’t mind the small addition, and the results speak for themselves.
This breakthrough provides an important tool in combatting climate change. Ruminants play an integral role in feeding the world, so while the average American might be able to cut some meat out of their diet, there are many for whom a bit of beef or milk is life-giving nourishment. If a simple, natural additive could remove much of the methane from livestock farming, agriculture would be credited with feeding the world AND saving the world.
In addition to the benefits to the environment, reducing methane production in ruminants allows more energy from feed to be fully metabolized and used to produce larger animals or more milk. This gives producers even more reason to feed seaweed; it promotes digestibility.
There are still a few roadblocks in the process. The most effective type of seaweed is Asparagopsis taxiformis, which is not found in large enough quantities in the wild to be fed to millions of cattle. Seaweed can be farmed, and this is being investigated. It would also need to be dried and made into a feed additive, which is what North Atlantic Organics is doing in Canada, however their methane reduction efficacy rates dropped significantly when compared to the UC Davis trials, which used whole seaweed.
Once there’s an effective feed made, some producers would like to see government incentives to feed seaweed additives. There are already incentives through the United States government to reduce methane output on farms. Anerobic digestors, which turn manure into energy, are currently subsidized by the USDA, but not every farm can build or operate one. A feed additive could make a large difference faster and more easily accessible.