POLL: Could feeding cows seaweed help fight climate change?

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In the fight, scientists are always exploring new ways to tackle our emissions problems. One recent suggestion is to, well, make cows fart and belch less — something that could be music to the ears of Irish farmers.

Researchers from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, released a study in 2016, which appeared to support what other scientists had previously discovered: Adding seaweed, specifically Asparagopsis taxiformis, to a cow’s diet in small amounts — just two percent of total feed — may cut the animal’s methane emissions by over 90 percent.

This approach has also been tested in sheep, with similar positive results.

Cows belong to a group known as ruminant mammals. And via their four chambered stomachs, these animals can eat foods that are difficult to digest, like grass. This ingenious evolutionary trait creates a number of byproducts, though — one of which is methane.

Once in our atmosphere, this super-insulating gas has a warming effect that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the first two decades after release. Estimates suggest that methane is about 23-25 times more damaging over a 100-year period than the equivalent amount of CO2.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

To put those facts into perspective, a single cow can release as much as 70 to 120 kg of methane per year. Given that the global population is upwards of 1.5 billion cows, that’s a lot of methane.

This presents a massive challenge for efforts to keep global temperatures below the 2ºC rise that climate scientists have deemed our upper limit. And that’s where seaweed might come in. The seaweed solution

The Seaweed Solution

The prospect of reducing methane emissions from cows has been a significant source of hope for the agricultural industry, which depends on dairy and cattle as a main income stream.

Here at Care2, we have often discussed how industrial cattle farms tend to be terrible for animal welfare, drive antibiotic resistance and threaten the environment. This is especially holds true when cattle are fed food stuffs like corn, which actually increase methane production.

But some farmers are keen to transition to more sustainable practices.

The Irish farming body, for example, aims to become a leader in environmentally-conscious agriculture. In 2012 Ireland committed to third-party-verified, 100 percent sustainable food exports by 2016 as part of the ongoing Origin Green campaign. The effort has prompted over 55,000 Irish farmers and 122 food and drink companies to become verified members of the sustainability and development program. And a large portion of those members are involved in beef production.

Clearly, Ireland wants to use what it calls a ”sustainable grass-based model of food production” to innovate and lead. This, the farming body argues, will mean improved animal welfare and better food for people, while also minimizing environmental impact.

As such, the Irish Farming Association’s interest in seaweed as a potential solution to cattle methane seems a natural part of their plan.

The association’s environment chairman, Thomas Cooney, has reportedly asked Irish scientists “to immediately investigate the potential for this research in an Irish agriculture context, and in the context of the opportunity that may exist for indigenous seaweed production.”

Ireland has a longstanding tradition of using its naturally abundant seaweed supply to its country’s advantage, and the country produces several popular lines of seaweed products. As a result, fusing seaweed harvesting — in a sustainable manner, of course — with cattle management presents a promising avenue of research.

That said, one point of concern exists: The seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis is an invasive species, thriving in most conditions. Introducing more of this seaweed to Irish waters isn’t without its risks, so any such operations must be carefully managed and controlled. Low methane cows as a short-term answer

Low methane cows as a short-term answer

While mass animal agriculture continues to pose significant risks to the environment, it’s difficult to argue with attempts to make these farming operations more sustainable. Again, no solution will be a perfect fit, but methane reduction in cows offers an exciting prospect — at least until plant-based diets gain more popularity.

Ongoing tests are examining just how scalable these methane reduction efforts may be, and results from Queensland should be published by the end of the month. Agricultural bodies across the world will be watching closely to see whether this innovation could help the industry achieve a more sustainable farming model — and it only seems appropriate that Ireland stands at the forefront of such efforts.

This article was first published by Care2.com on 30 Jul 2017.

We invite you to share your opinion whether feeding cows seaweed could help fight climate change? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Could feeding cows seaweed help fight climate change?

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Editorial Comment: The purpose of this poll is to highlight important wildlife conservation issues and to encourage discussion on ways to stop wildlife crime. By leaving a comment and sharing this post you can help to raise awareness. Thank you for your support.


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July Whitby

Organic diet would produce organic waste tho why seaweed when grass has been a natural food for cattle for thousands of years , free grazing to , eating less meat would combat global emissions re factory farming , what ever next !

Annick Baud

For one, the human specie is the only one on the planet to keep drinking milk passed its babyhood stage, a corrupted behavior in the first place. As for eating meat, humans have also become unbalanced: we are not carnivorous but omnivorous. It’s only since the Industrial Age onward that we eat meat every day, and it’s a complete abheration. Another thing to consider: most species grown for food are living a hellish nightmare from birth to death. They are in a constant state of depression, fear and suffering, which imbibes every single cell of their bodies. And we call… Read more »

Theresa Kemp

Another idea is to go back to normal farming methods and not produce en-masse. This would cause a skittle effect back to war time in a way. We then start treating meat as a luxury again and return to treating our animals with care. On a smaller scale,said animals would be raised and slaughtered humanely, bypassing the need to speed slaughtering up to majntain numbers thereby not following the correct procedure. The natural farming methods instead of the forced farming for greater numbers would mean we would eat a more balanced and healthier diet and we would become a more… Read more »

M Leybra
M Leybra

Even pre-wartime ‘normal farming methods’ meant meat was not consumed daily by most of populations the way it is today & yes, that would be a sensible goal. Is it realistically attainable goal in today’s world of meat industry over-production. A world where even ocean fish are now farmed for over-production causing more environmental destruction? Absolutely not but your perspective is right on the money. Can only add to all, the root cause, that the human species itself is in a continuing mode of over-production, w/ current global population projected to double by the end of this 2017 century.

David Robson

Veganism and vegetarianism would help climate change, but that would meam human becoming a little less selfish – no chance, in other words.

JD Creager

If the farmer is over grazing and few do because it damages the pasture. They need to learn to manage the herd.

Next you have a problem with Sea weed and kelp. That being the iodine in it. Cattle cannot digest the iodine. In a study from U.C Davis the cattle produces far less milk and the liver developed precancerous spots.

The process to remove the iodine from the seaweed products proved to expensive costing almost $700. per ton.

JD Creager

If the farmer is over grazing and few do because it damages the pasture. They need to learn to manage the herd.

Next you have a problem with Sea weed and kelp. That being the iodine in it. Cattle cannot digest the iodine. In a study from U.C Davis the cattle produces far less milk and the liver developed precancerous spots.

The process to remove the iodine from the seaweed products proved to expensive costing almost $700. per ton.

Amanda Willemse

Seriously, now we are going to make cows eat foods unnatural to their diet. I’ve yet to see a cow sink his head into the deep blue ocean for food. As if we don’t already put our domestic and farm animals through enough hell. Stop eating meat period!! Problem solved!!

Andrei Hanches

The problem is not what you feed your livestock on as much as the number of livestock you have.Domstic bovines in small populations can’t put habitats in big risk of over-grazing.But today millions of cows strip the land out of vegetetion.And well vegetated soil is turned into farmland.No doubts about how effective that is in pushing desertification further and desolatig the earth.Fewer high-tek farms and even fewer cows will regres the issue without question.

M Leybra
M Leybra

Obviously that’s not an option since all considerations revolve on how to produce more food for growing human populations. Or recall the so-called Green Revolution of years ago as an answer to feeding the world’s hungry,though today in Africa, cattle farmers are invading & killing people to takeover new grazing land for their cattle who have depleted their own soil. Recent NY Times article of looming crises.