When it comes to discussion of climate change, and how to prevent its impact, those of the activist persuasion would have the rest of humanity believe that the biggest existential threat to the continued survival of Planet Earth is currently wandering around on four hoofs chewing its cud.
If only all the bovine species in the world could be . . . well, somehow “put out to pasture,” figuratively speaking, then we could all breathe easier of the cooler, cleaner air we’d all enjoy as a result.
But new research being conducted in Australia has generated legitimate results: Adding small amounts of the seaweed plant Asparagopsis taxiformis to animal feed reduces methane emissions by up to 80% — or more.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so even though a recent news story about the project Down Under was titled, “How to Stop Farts From Warming the Planet,” it’s no laughing matter. Not only would a reduction in the emission of methane from, livestock be beneficial in terms of climate change, but use of this particular type of red seaweed could also help mitigate ocean acidification, remove invasive species, restore fisheries, and support coastal economies dependent on productive fisheries.
All that might seem far-fetched, but truthfully, livestock do emit copious quantities of methane out of pretty much every orifice they have. Some researchers estimate that animals generate as much as 44% of all human-related methane, a gas that has 30 times the potential to impact global warming as carbon dioxide.
Researchers at Australia’s CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) labs, in conjunction with James Cook University scientists, have been testing a variety of seaweed species for their methane-reducing properties. As the story on the TakePart.com website noted, however, when they tested A. taxiformis, they were shocked.
“We thought our instruments were broken,” said Michael Battaglia, CSIRO group leader. “The reduction rate was more than 99%. It was virtually undetectable.”
When researchers fed the seaweed to sheep, at just 3% of the feed ration, they found a methane reduction of up to 80%.
Battaglia, no wild-eyed activist, was quoted in the story as claiming that livestock burps and farts account for 5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. “The total contribution from land transportation is 10%, so we’re talking about the equivalent of half of all the vehicles in the world,” he said. “It’s not a trivial number.”
An Ocean of Possibility
How does the seaweed diet work? Turns out that A. taxiformis contains the compound bromoform, which reacts with vitamin B12 during digestion and disrupts the enzymes used by gut bacteria to produce methane.
But even if such a nutritional tactic proves feasible, the question then becomes, where would producers and feeders obtain all the seaweed they’d need? The Aussie researchers estimated that 23 square miles of seaweed farms would be needed to create enough of the additive to feed just 10% of Australian livestock. Producing enough for the entire 90-some million U.S. cattle herd would require seaweed farming on an unprecedented scale.
However, that might be a good thing. Not to roll out an “oceanic” pun, but the impact of seaweed research goes much deeper than altering cattle rations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency is currently working on a collaborative project with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which was just awarded $1.5 million by the Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to support the cultivation of seaweed.
“There aren’t a lot of tools in the tool box that can fight ocean acidification or remove CO2 from the ocean,” Dr. Michael Rust, NOAA’s Aquaculture Science Coordinator and a collaborator on the project, said in a statement on NOAA’s website. “Seaweed farms might be one of our best bets.”
Turns out that some species of seaweed, particularly kelp, actually thrive in acidic ocean waters. The plants consume CO2 and draw down levels of dissolved acids, nitrogen and phosphorus, according to NOAA. The seaweed also gives off oxygen, which can help restore so-called “dead zones,” coastal areas where an overabundance of nutrients spurs an overgrowth of algae that de-oxygenates the water.
NOAA scientists hope that seaweed farms could act as “protective halos” to mitigate local acidification and pollution, while improving the habitat for marine species.
Kelp and other seaweeds naturally grow in shallow bays and estuaries, such as Puget Sound, as anyone who has gone swimming in those areas can testify when slimy lengths of pea-green seaweed wrap around their legs. But their current density and expanse of kelp beds and other seaweed habitats is only a fraction of their historical levels, NOAA’s research has confirmed, so seaweed farming may be the only way to restore the plant’s natural habitat.
One final coda to this story: Don’t be shocked, but anti-industry activists aren’t in favor of the seaweed solution.
Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Food and Agriculture Program at the National Resources Defense Council, argued that seaweed won’t alleviate all the other environmental damage caused by livestock.
“While we pursue technology strategies like this, which are potentially very important, we also have to look at the larger equation and ask if we can really be sustainable with all the animals we’re creating and consuming,” he was quoted as saying. “I think the answer is that we cannot.”
Thanks, Johnny, but with all due respect to your analysis: Stuff some seaweed in it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.