Livestock have been eating seaweed for centuries in coastal areas, and using seaweed as a feed additive for extra protein and improved animal health is nothing new. However, adding seaweed to animals’ diet specifically to reduce their methane production is a relatively new idea.
Adding 0.2% of the seaweed Asparagopsis has been proven to reduce methane production in cows with 98%, simultaneously improving weight gain by 42%.
Sounds great. Is seaweed the solution to agriculture’s methane problem, or is there a catch? What are the threats and opportunities to the business model? And which companies are trying to take advantage?
Live stock is responsible for 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with methane being the largest culprit. Most of the methane produced by cows is a by-product of their digestion, when microbes in the cow’s digestive tract decompose and ferment food. A much smaller percentage of the methane comes from cows’ manure.
There are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world, and that number is growing as demand for beef and dairy increases. Together with other grazing animals, cows contribute 37% of the annual methane gas level towards global warming.
The seaweed solution
The genus of seaweed that has been garnering all the attention is Asparagopsis. Asparagopsis taxiformis thrives in tropical and subtropical seas, while Asparagopsis armata is found in temperate waters.
The reason why Asparagopsis is so effective in reducing methane production is because it contains a lot of bromoform (in fact, all seaweeds contain bromoform, but asparagopsis contains more than any other). The fact that bromoform inhibits methane production has been known since the 1970s,1feednavigator.com. “Nutritional strategies to cut methane release in cows” podcast, at 9:50 but no one considered feeding it to animals, because negative health effects had been observed in the past, and bromoform also breaks down the ozone layer once it gets in the atmosphere.
Research done since has proven that asparagopsis can be incorporated into animal feed in a way that is safe for animals and the ozone layer, at the same time providing considerable increases in weight gain. However, effects on milk protein content so far have been negative.2feednavigator.com. “Nutritional strategies to cut methane release in cows” podcast, at 13:00
Other types of seaweed blends have been shown to provide similar benefits, if not as spectacular. Seaweed growers (Blugrass, Dulabio, Cascadia) and EU government-funded research programs (Seach4nge, Seasolutions, Seacow) are working on this.
11 companies and start-ups in the market
The first research on Asparagopsis was carried out by the Australian CSIRO institute. CSIRO has since established a spin off company, FutureFeed, which holds the global rights to award and manage licenses around the world to use Asparagopsis in feed for methane reduction. This means that all companies growing Asparagopsis, are using FutureFeed’s license.
FutureFeed has raised A$13 million ($9.34 million) in funding from CSIRO and 4 other founding investors: retail giant Woolworths, commodities handler GrainCorp, agrifood group Harvest Road, and accelerator operator AGP Sustainable Real Assets–Sparklabs Cultiv8 Joint Venture.
The new company and its investors will seek to build a full value chain from the ground up for bromoform-infused cattle food, covering seaweed cultivation, processing, feed manufacturing, and distribution to the worldwide beef and dairy industries. FutureFeed says it expects to be supplying Australian beef and dairy farmers with its feed in commercial volumes by the middle of 2021.
Greener Grazing is a project led by sustainability champions Australis Aquaculture. Working from off-shore test sites in Portugal and Vietnam, they aim to have the first commercial harvest in 2021. CEO Josh Goldman says: “Our goal is to create the knowledge and tools for this to work on a global scale. We’ll need tens of thousands of individual farmers, so our role will be as knowledge providers and potentially as supply consolidators.”
A land-based approach means greater control over environmental factors, which could ultimately improve the quality of the seaweed, which would further reduce effective inclusion level.
Volta Greentech has raised close to 1 million dollar in capital to date from investors including Claes Dinkenspiel, the Kjell & Märta Beijers Foundation, Peter Carlsson, CEO at Northvolt, the super angel Hampus Jakobsson, and Joachim Karthäuser, CTO at Climeon. They aim to get to market in 2021.
Blue Ocean Barns is growing Asparagopsis on the coast of Hawaii. It plans to have products available by the end of 2021, focusing on California, where farmers are mandated by law to reduce methane emissions by 40% by 2030. It has garnered investments from dairy producers such as Mars and Land O’Lakes, Elemental Excelerator and Valor Equity Partners.
In Australia, Seaforest has a 100 hectare marine lease and expects to harvest 500 tons of dried asparagopsis a year at its pilot facility, with plans to triple the annual harvest by 2022. Investors include Bandera Capital and Keiretsu Forum.
Finally, CH4Global is conducting pilots in Australia and New Zealand and hopes to have several 20 ha plots of seaweed under cultivation during the 2021-2022 growing season.3interview with Michael Lakeman The company has raised 3 million dollars from a select group of prominent family offices and private investors from around the world and also includes non-dilutive capital from leading government innovation groups, including the New Zealand Provisional Growth Fund, South Australian Research & Development Institute, the Australian Fisheries Research Development Corporation, and the South Australian Landing Pad.
Other seaweed species
Dutch start-up Blugrass is already selling its seaweed feed additive to select Dutch farmers, and claims to reduce methane emissions up to 90% in the market. They seem not to use Asparagopsis, but a blend of herbs and seaweed. In Ireland, DúlaBio is also experimenting with other types of seaweed. They have already published data on live trials and are continuing trials on livestock farms.
In Canada, Cascadia Seaweed is looking to cultivate species native to the northwestern Pacific with similar properties to Asparagopsis. Currently in the research phase
Competing feed additives
3-NOP has seen methane reductions of over 80% and has been shown to not affect feed intake, with a small increase in feed efficiency, especially for dairy cows.4feednavigator.com. “Nutritional strategies to cut methane release in cows” podcast, at 3:00 Mootral is a garlic and citric acid natural feed supplement, which has been shown to inhibit methane production in the rumen by 23 to 38 percent.
Other feed additives shown to reduce methane burps are willow and fumaric acid, as well as simply feeding better quality grass. Vaccinations may be a future avenue worth exploring. Bromoform can also be produced quite simply in a laboratory.
- 99% reduction in methane is higher than any other feed additive
- has nutritional value because it contains minerals, protein and bioactive compounds
- only feed additive so far to see sizable increases in cattle weight gain
- seaweed cultivation offers others benefits
- does not compete for arable land
- does not need freshwater, fertilisers or pesticides
- may be more efficient than land-based systems for long-term carbon storage
- can restore marine habitats
- offers jobs to revive coastal communities
- bromoform is an ozone-depleting substance and needs to be handled with care
- bromoform is cancerogenic and future research may still find negative effects on animal health or production
- so far, no one is growing Asparagopsis in a cost-effective way yet
- More countries are likely to put limits on the methane emissions from livestock
- If Asparagopsis can consistently demonstrate weight gain in beef cattle, the feed additive comes at no extra cost for farmers
- A subset of consumers is willing to pay extra for carbon-neutral milk and meat
- A cheaper, more effective way of reducing methane in livestock might become available in the future
Macroalgae have many possible applications, and it should be an easy pivot to a different species of seaweed with a different application for Asparagopsis growers.
While there are still gaps in the science, the viability of seaweed as a safe methane slasher looks positive. What is left now is for pioneering companies to show that they can bring their feed additives to market at a reasonable price, and to dispel any doubts about the safety of Asparagopsis to animals, humans and the ozone layer.
Research to improve ruminants’ diets will continue, and seaweed is certainly no silver bullet. Asparagopsis will likely be one of a variety of methane-inhibiting strategies in the years to come, as the amount of seaweed that would need to be grown to supply all cattle (not to mention sheep and other ruminants) is far too great to consider in the short or mid term.