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Story: Lucy Taylor
The journey for me started in Nova Scotia, Canada,” says Dr Rob Kinley, a research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). “An innovative farmer Jo Dorgan noticed that the cows he had in a beachfront paddock were performing better than the rest and the only difference was the availability of seaweed on the beach.”
For more than a decade Rob has been investigating the benefits of seaweed – in particular, what happens when it is introduced into the diet of ruminants. Globally there are 1.3 billion individuals who rely on the livestock industry for their livelihoods. This number is steadily increasing as livestock production becomes integral in addressing worldwide food and economic poverty. However, it is widely known that when sheep and cattle belch they release methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. It has been proven that this gas has 28 times more impact on short-term global temperatures than carbon dioxide. According to the CSIRO, about 20% of the world’s total human-made greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production.
These staggering figures are what led Rob from Canada to Australian shores and to a discovery that not only has the potential to curb methane emissions produced by livestock, but to also improve farm profitability, without an adverse impact on livestock productivity.
On the beaches of Nova Scotia, Rob – along with scientists with similar ideas – discovered that methane emissions from cattle digesting seaweed declined by 20%. “From that moment onwards I was looking to find a seaweed with even better methane-busting properties,” Rob says.
This led him to a type of seaweed called asparagopsis, a genus of red algae native to Australia and New Zealand that drastically reduces methane emissions in cattle. After making this discovery, Rob joined the CSIRO to work with a team at James Cook University (JCU) to create a natural feed additive that would reduce methane and improve feed-use efficiency.
“Many seaweeds have a beneficial effect on methane production, but asparagopsis is the star performer, with unprecedented mitigation by a natural product,” Rob says. It was discovered that the seaweed produces a bioactive compound called bromoform, which prevents the formation of methane by inhibiting a specific enzyme in the gut during digestion. If scientists can harness this and essentially turn it into an ingredient that can be fed to cattle and sheep, it will be a game changer - and not only for the livestock industry.
Intro: more than 20% of human-made greenhouse emissions are linked to livestock. (Photo: Nathan Dyer)
Above: Asparagopsis, a genus of red algae.
In a bid to produce a product based on asparagopsis, a CSIRO-affiliated company was created, called FutureFeed. This company holds a licence enabling the commercialisation of the seaweed technology both globally and exclusively. The technology is held jointly by CSIRO, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), CH4 Global and JCU. “FutureFeed exists to support the growth of the use of asparagopsis as a natural ingredient for livestock to significantly reduce carbon emissions,” says Rob, who is now the company’s chief scientist.
FutureFeed has created Asparagopsis Seaweed Meal – whole seaweed, dried and incorporated into food as a suspension in molasses base or pellet, or as a seaweed flake with roughage. The product has been trialled on sheep, and dairy and beef cattle in feedlots in different locations across Australia and America, with extremely positive results.
“We have demonstrated a [methane] reduction of over 95% in beef cattle being fed a mixed ration, and this was achieved using a relatively low quality and quantity of seaweed,” Rob says. “Less than 0.5% of dietary intake for beef cattle was required to achieve this result, but as the quality of the seaweed improves, less seaweed will be required.”
FutureFeed CEO Andrew Gatenby explains how much of a change this could make to the industry. “If 10% of livestock producers added 1% of Asparagopsis Seaweed Meal to the daily feed intake of ruminant livestock, it would have the same positive climate effect as removing 100 million cars from the road.”
In 2020, FutureFeed won the Food Planet Prize, a $US1 million international award. From a pool of more than 600 entries, the judges noted that the product’s positive social impacts could make a huge difference, not only in Australia but worldwide.
Andrew says that a portion of this money will be used to expand the initiative globally, with a plan to help Indigenous peoples around the world engage with seaweed production. “In addition, this plan and the technology has indirect coastal benefits in terms of jobs, water clarification [seaweed is a bio-filter that cleans water], and for people growing mussels or oysters, [who] could in theory grow seaweed around the edge of their properties,” he says.
The algae is native to waters off the Yorke Peninsula, SA, which has the perfect climate to grow both cold and warm varieties. CH4 Global has a wholly owned subsidiary, CH4 South Australia, which has signed an agreement with the local Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation. It’s the beginning of a partnership to develop commercial-scale cultivation and processing, while also generating sustainable benefits for Indigenous people through jobs and training.
However, actually growing asparagopsis has been FutureFeed’s biggest challenge. There are not enough seaweed farms within Australia to manufacture the product at a large scale.
“We have aligned with [Tasmanian-based] Sea Forest, the first company in the world to cultivate asparagopsis at scale,” Andrew says. “They have bought a mussel farm and are going to convert that to seaweed, and in time will potentially have a licensed area of around 1600ha.”
This has the potential to supply the entire feedlot industry annually within Australia. Also, the company aims to educate and inform prospective growers of the advantages of growing seaweed. Its high growth rate is an incentive for farmers with sea farm leases who harvest mussels and other ocean products to change to asparagopsis or grow the seaweed on the outside of their existing crops.
FutureFeed has attracted investors to help build the business and commercialise the product. Among them are Woolworths, GrainCorp, AGP SparksLab Cultiv8 and Harvest Road. Tattarang, which is one of Australia’s largest private investment groups and the parent company of R.M.Williams, owns Harvest Road and believes in investing for growth, a clear indication of where it believes FutureFeed is heading. However, at least one marine industry expert has recently stated that hopes for the seaweed are overly optimistic, both in terms of its effects and our ability to grow enough.
According to the MLA, the livestock industry managed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 60% between 2005 and 2016. The organisation believes a zero carbon footprint is possible by 2030, if advances such as FutureFeed’s meal is employed on a large scale.
GrainCorp CEO Robert Spurway has been aware of the seaweed for the past two years. “We as a company are excited for what FutureFeed can do for the livestock industry around the world,” he says. “Farmers in general, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, have been really innovative over the years improving productivity and practices, and we could not be happier to be a part of commercialising something that could really change the profile and the sustainability of meat and dairy production.”
This story is from Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2021 2016 Issue #136