Cows produce beef, milk – and a lot of methane.
A byproduct of digestion, methane is produced from both ends of the animals, although over 90% enters the atmosphere via their burps.
And that’s a problem, because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, which traps 28 times more heat than carbon dioxide over 100 years.
As the world’s appetite for beef has grown over the last two decades, annual methane emissions have risen 9% a year. According to the FAO, cattle are responsible for nearly 10% of greenhouse gases generated worldwide by human activity.
Now, a new company – FutureFeed – says it has a solution. The Queensland-based startup was established last month by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the Australian government’s scientific research agency.
With four other investors including Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Woolworths, the organization hopes to make belching bovines less of a problem – by adding a pinky-red, fern-like seaweed called asparagopsis to their diet.
Freeze-dried and fed to cows as a supplement, asparagopsis eliminated methane “below the detection limits of our instruments,” in tests, says Michael Battaglia, a research director for CSIRO and a director of FutureFeed. When the seaweed was first trialed by scientists, it performed so well that they assumed their equipment was broken, he adds.
FutureFeed attributes the seaweed’s methane-busting clout to a compound called bromoform, which stop microbes in the cows’ guts producing the gas. Many seaweeds contain small quantities of bromoform, explains Battaglia, but asparagopsis is unusual because it stores large amounts in special cells on the surface of its fronds.
The science is clear, but a major hurdle remains – there isn’t enough asparagopsis.