Can Seaweeds Save The Planet!
A pink seaweed that grows in tropical waters could end up being a huge aid in reducing greenhouse gases, if scientists in Australia have their way.
Researchers are looking into ways to sustainably mass-produce the crimson-hued algae – called Asparagopsis taxiformis – after a study five years ago demonstrated it almost completely nullified the natural release of methane burped out by cows.
“When added to cow feed at less than two percent of the dry matter, this particular seaweed completely knocks out methane production,” says aquaculture biologist Nick Paul from the University of the Sunshine Coast.
“It contains chemicals that reduce the microbes in the cows’ stomachs that cause them to burp when they eat grass.”
Australian Research Team
Paul was a member of an Australian research team who in 2014 analysed 20 different species of tropical macroalgae to see which, if any, might best reduce methane production when fed to cattle.
While methane represents a much smaller overall source of atmospheric pollution than carbon dioxide (CO2), its heat-trapping potential makes it much more harmful than CO2, especially in the short term.
Over the course of 100 years, atmospheric methane is about 28 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, and in a 20-year time-frame it’s thought to be over 100 times worse.
With that kind of heat-trapping potential – and the reality that livestock are responsible for about 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (65 percent of which are due to cattle) – it’s clear that A. taxiformis could have a vital role to play in reducing future global warming.
Seaweeds as a Superfood
Seaweeds are considered a superfood. BBC reports that the many different types of seaweeds are full of nutrients, pumped with minerals, proteins, Vitamin K and more. In fact, research has traced the longevity of the Japanese people, particularly the Okinawans, to a diet that is mostly composed of seaweeds and other vegetables.
Moreover the report reveals that seaweeds contain fucoidans, a molecule that improves health and life expectancy, and boosts immunity and cardiovascular function.
Seaweeds are also an extraordinary sources of iodine, vital in ensuring a healthy thyroid. The Guardian also lists various other nutritional benefits which include: high fibre content which is important for digestive health, low calories, detox properties and the capability to regulate hormones to aid in cancer prevention.
Seaweeds as climate change fighters
Also in Canada, a farmer revealed that his cows which ate washed up seaweed were healthier and had longer mating cycles. Verified by Canadian researchers Rob Kinley and Alan Fredeen who also noted the reduced methane levels of the cattle studied.
Researchers from James Cook University found that sheep which consumed at least two percent of seaweed in their diet reduced their methane levels by 50 to 70 percent. The same study also discovered that cows with a normal diet of grass, along with a small amount of seaweed, can reduce their methane emissions by 99 percent.
Can Enough Seaweed be Grown?
At Ebb Tides we are concerned about the use of wild seaweeds due to sustainability issues, but can enough seaweed be grown to supply the demand required for feeding cows. Dr Luke Gardner a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist states.
The current wild supply won’t provide enough supply to counteract the methane cows release. To do that, it must be farmed, which hasn’t yet been done. Gardner said it’s important to look for a native seaweed that can be grown at scale in the U.S. Doing so would help not just the climate, but it’s also a nascent industry, Gardner said. “We hope to kickstart seaweed aquaculture on the West Coast,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest in it and (growing seaweed for cattle feed) would give it a real market.”
The vast majority of seaweed farming today takes place in the ocean in a handful of Asian nations, headed by China. In the U.S., many bureaucratic and cultural hurdles keep seaweed aquaculture from becoming a mainstay. (A few kelp farms do exist in Maine and Connecticut, but they are the exception.) California, in particular, has a very complex permitting process. Only one off-shore commercial aquaculture farm, Catalina Sea Ranch, has been permitted thus far in federal waters off the southern coast. Its main crop is mussels, but it’s also experimenting with kelp.
Members of the state’s Native American communities have raised alarms about expanding seaweed cultivation and harvesting before, noting the sacred role seaweed plays in their cultures and the other recent examples of others overharvesting foods that are important to indigenous communities, as has happened with abalone populations on Northern California’s coast.
To Gardner, allowing seaweed aquaculture in the state is a no-brainer. Growing it locally is economically advantageous. The average cow eats 10,000 pounds of dry matter forage per year. So the state would need about 140,000 dry tons of the seaweed per year to add just 1 percent of it to cows’ diet.
To overcome these challenges, the researcher at the U.C. San Diego envision initially growing seaweed in tanks. Smith is studying the asparagopsis taxiformis found locally, looking at how manipulating temperature, light, and nutrient concentration affects growth rate. “We want to grow it as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Smith said.
Smith’s team is working to develop a living library of the native asparagopsis strains and running experiments in the lab to find the optimal one. “We might be able to find a strain that grows fast, is tolerant to environmental conditions, and produces the most bromoform,” Smith said. She is also trying to increase the marine algae’s concentration of bromoform by manipulating nitrogen and phosphorous, which would allow the cows to consume less of the seaweed.
A land-based system of tanks would minimize environmental impacts and allow for better control of the fragile algae, Smith said. In particular, researchers could optimize a growing phase during which the seaweed reproduces through fragmentation, meaning it could be cut it into pieces that each grow into a full plant. Growing in tanks also means no worries about pests, predators, storms, swells, or other dangers.
“If we can optimize growth rates, all you need is access to sunlight and clean seawater and tanks,” said Smith. “You can have much more control.”
However, Josh Goldman, the founder of Australis Aquaculture, says growing seaweed in the ocean is more cost efficient and effective. For the past year and half, Goldman’s company—which farms barramundi in Massachusetts and Vietnam—has been working on a project called Greener Grazing. Its goal is to cultivate asparagopsis in the ocean (the entire life cycle of the seaweed hasn’t yet been replicated in captivity).
Seaweeds could help Save The Planet however at Ebb Tides we believe substantial investment is required to produce the required amount of seaweed to help make an impact when it comes to Save The Planet. Governments may have to get involved with financial assistance if they are serious about their intents to Save The Planet.