By Colleen Bungard
During fair week this year, students had to figure out how they would address the fictional scenario of a federal law limiting cattle numbers being passed. In a study conducted by Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast in 2005, a genus of seaweed called Asparagopsis has been shown to reduce the amount of methane produced by cattle by an astounding 98.2%. The seaweed has other potential benefits as well, but there’s just one problem: we haven’t done anything to utilize its unique properties.
The authors of the study suspect that some kind of secondary metabolite is what gives the seaweed its remarkable property. Secondary metabolites are small molecules that plants release as a defense mechanism, like the toxins that milkweed plants produce to deter insects from eating the plant’s leaves.
A variety of other compounds have been studied for their gas-inhibiting effects, including other varieties of seaweed, zinc, and garlic, but none so promising as Asparagopsis. In addition to practically eliminating bovine methane emissions, this seaweed has the potential to improve diet digestibility and the overall efficiency of cattle. Cattle lose 12% of their gross energy intake to producing methane, so eliminating preventing methane production also prevents that energy loss, which in turn results in more efficient cattle. The USC study and other more recent studies also analyzed the impact of the seaweed on the production of volatile fatty acids, or VFAs, which are what the cow uses to create energy. Decreased VFA levels are an indicator of inhibited digestion, but all the studies have shown that quantities of seaweed that inhibit methane do not impact VFA levels.
Many countries like New Zealand are trying to reduce methane emissions by proposing legislation to reduce the number of cattle in the country. However, they are facing massive backlash, because farmers (understandably) don’t want to lose profits or their jobs. This seaweed could be a solution that lets us eliminate methane while allowing farmers to maintain herd sizes and profits.
It’s pretty clear that this seaweed has remarkable potential, so why isn’t it already being used in cattle feed? After all, the Sunshine Coast study that revealed Asparagopsis ‘s potential was published in 2005. It’s been 14 years since then, but the seaweed is yet to be made commercially available. Part of that time has been devoted to further research confirming and expanding our knowledge of the seaweed’s effects, but the main obstacle to actually using it is that we don’t have the funding to develop the methods and equipment needed to mass produce it. Not a single politician or entrepreneur has taken the initiative to use this amazing discovery to solve our methane problem.
That’s where we come in. It’s important that we, as students, learn about things like this so that in the not-so-far-off future, when our generation is the one doing research and creating laws, we can use ideas like this one to create real change. We will be the engineers that develop ways to sustainably produce enough seaweed to feed cows everywhere, the politicians that support its implementation in the farming industry, and the farmers that choose to feed it to their cows. We will have to be the ones to take responsibility for the damage we are doing to our planet. That’s why what we do here in school is important: we need to acquire the skills and knowledge to accomplish what the current generation hasn’t.