FutureFeed

Prizewinner 2020 Based in Australia

Exploring the power of seaweed as a methane-blocking feed supplement in the vitally urgent effort to stop cows from burping us into a climate catastrophe.

The Challenge: The methane threat on our plates and in our glasses

Like most ruminants, cows burp and fart a lot, the result of digesting the tough, fibrous plants they eat. Especially the burping results in high methane emissions, a bi-product of one of nature's most ingenious mechanisms; the ruminants' step-by-step system of multi-stomach compartments that converts grass and other plants – inedible to us – to the nutritious, tasty mixes of proteins and fat that end up on our tables.

Prizewinner 2020

One kilogram of beef is the source of around 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2-equivalents), mostly methane. Likewise, cows’ milk leaves a weighty footprint.  A highly potent greenhouse gas, in a twenty-year timespan, methane has a warming potential up to 80 times that of CO2. On average, a single cow releases over 250 liters of methane per day – making cows a conspicuous contributor to global warming.

Livestock farming and the meat industry are responsible for 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over half of what the food sector emits. In tandem with rice production, livestock accounts for over one-third of the human-based methane sources, contributing to atmospheric methane concentrations 2.5 times higher than before the Industrial Revolution.

 

FutureFeed is a joint initiative, currently being developed by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in collaboration with Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), and James Cook University (JCU).

The initial investors include CSIRO, GrainCorp, Woolworths, Harvest Road, and AGP Sustainable Real Assets-Sparklabs Cultiv8. The venture is set to launch as a five-way private partnership. FutureFeed’s final partners were selected for their ability to help establish production and supply chains, delivery and retail, and accessing carbon markets. They aim to make the feed additive market-ready in 2021.

FutureFeed’s management is comprised of  Chief Scientist and founder Dr. Rob Kinley from CSIRO, and commercial personnel led by Andrew Gatenby, who was retained by CSIRO to establish the FutureFeed enterprise.

In the past 30 years, livestock farming has almost doubled in volume. The expansion continues to be rapid in developing economies, where beef consumption is expected to increase by 21% from 2018 to 2027, according to the OECD/FAO. Population growth and increased prosperity in Asia are the foremost drivers, along with the average Chinese consumer’s perception that beef and other bovine meats are healthier and disease-free alternatives, particularly when compared to pork, after recurring swine flu pandemics.

Increased milk consumption is another big driver. Despite a high degree of lactose intolerance in its population, China’s milk consumption has been rising from almost zero in 1970 to 38 kgs of dairy products in 2018. Promoted by public health policy, the ambition is to triple the current dairy consumption. China is already the world’s third-largest cow milk producer, after India and the US, yet to sustain a booming dairy industry, the nation is increasingly relying on imported milk.

Even as red meat consumption is being resisted in some parts of the world, it’s quite clear that cows are here to stay. And they will grow in numbers. To reduce methane emissions, we have to address the burping cow issue on multiple fronts.

 

"Curbing livestock emissions, and especially methane from cows, is a growing concern. Cutting down on red meat in our diets is important but will not be enough."

The Initiative: Attacking methane emissions at one of its sources

Nature often proves to harbor solutions to its own problems, and ours too. Seaweed has long been used to eke out livestock feed where grazing grounds are scarce. If initially a poor farmer’s solution, seaweed as a feed supplement has proven to have benefits far beyond cost-cutting or emergency purposes.

After the initial chewing, an army of microbes in the ruminants’ stomachs goes to work, successively breaking down the plant stuff down. It starts in the first of the four stomach compartments – the rumen – where the matter is fermented before being regurgitated to be rechewed, along with gas: methane. Burps. This microbial fermentation continues all the way through the system until the feed particles are converted into fatty acids. Methane is formed when the carbohydrates are broken down. There are various ways to interfere in the methane-forming process. Manipulating what microbes have to work on through feed additives has proven to greatly impact what comes out, front and rear.

Connemara cows in Ireland are known to feast on seaweed. Photo: FutureFeed

Seaweed as a natural methane blocker is a genuinely promising approach to restricting emissions in the agriculture sector. It can overcome many of the barriers that have hindered progress, including regulatory restrictions that limit synthetic feed additives. As a supplement, even at low doses, the seaweed has demonstrated its power to decrease methane gas production by more than 80%. Bromoform is the seaweed’s active substance. It blocks the completion of methane formation by disrupting the gut microbes’ last step activity.

Asparagopsis taxiformis, the seaweed in question, is a red algae species found in temperate waters. It was discovered and refined by marine algae specialists in Australia, and related seaweed species all over the world are being researched for similar gains and their cultivation potential.

Known as FutureFeed, this initiative has been identified by the Australian Department of the Environment as the top of four priority technologies for reducing enteric methane emissions from livestock. With direct economic benefits for livestock farmers, in addition to reducing the negative climate impact, scalability is restricted mainly by how much seaweed can be made sustainably available.

The technology could also have indirect benefits, including filtering detrimental nutrients in ocean water and creating alternative incomes in developing countries where fisheries are in decline