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Mapping the mix of options for reducing methane emissions from cows

In this article, Prof Nick Paul takes a step back from Asparagopsis seaweed, and highlights some other options that can reduce the hoofprint of cows
The Pink Seaweed Asparagopsis
© University of the Sunshine Coast

By now you may have realised that great ideas still require great effort to bring them to reality. There is no silver bullet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant livestock, especially when so many people still rely on them for producing protein and nutrients for their health and on farming them for their livelihoods. So what are the next steps that can reduce the climate hoofprint of cows?

You have just heard about Asparagopsis, and understand that the sustainable production of the seaweed is key to the success of this discovery. Right now, there are dozens of companies around the world that have taken up the challenge to supply this seaweed, from the tropics to cool temperature waters, on every continent, in the sea and on land as well. They are working towards the right recipe for production which balances economic, environmental and social needs. There is still much to learn about the pink seaweed Asparagopsis, and many new applications will spawn from this effort.

Here are some other considerations for tackling the methane problem in cows:

Are there other anti-methanogenic seaweeds out there? Does it all really boil down to just Asparagopsis? Just one type of seaweed amongst the 10,000 plus that exist? Scientists are now screening many other varieties in a search for more seaweed solutions. The problem is that nothing comes close to Asparagopsis, pound for pound in reductions. Perhaps they will again find the perfect mix in another seaweed, but it is too early to tell.

What about the natural products of plants? There are less than 10 commodity seaweeds that are produced at scale, but there are so many more varieties of crops around the world. Some of these plants are known for their potent essential oils. You may even have seen a burger chain exploring lemongrass to reduce methane. Thai-inspired burgers sound scrumptious but the results are still out on the efficacy of these feed additives.

Why not just make a synthetic ingredient? Especially if we know what compounds are responsible for reducing methane. Budding chemists will be nodding, as will those with a keen eye for business considering the costs of seaweed farming versus industrial chemistry. Some of the world’s largest multinationals are doing just this, with promising results (look up 3NOP, 3-Nitrooxypropanol). But the reality is that consumers might prefer a natural ingredient. Either way, this is not an either/or. All promising, cost-effective and safe ingredients will be needed to get to carbon neutral.

Will lab-grown meat be any better? If you are comfortable with a lab-grown source, then maybe cultured meat could help meet demand for protein and dairy. Understanding the balance over time between methane and carbon dioxide will be needed for this comparison. Watch this space. It is still early days, and economies of scale may well deliver more climate-friendly meat to our plates. But demand is also increasing as the global population heads to 10 billion.

Plant-based ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ are here to stay. Many will have tried and likely agree that these offerings are more diverse in flavour and more readily available than ever before. Just like lab-grown meat, these food and beverage products will no doubt be crucial to meet the health and nutrition requirements of our growing population. Some of us are already making the decision to reduce or eliminate animal products from our diets. One motivation is to minimise environmental footprints. It is complex, and depends on where and how you live, but these discussions are an important part of the future mix.

© University of the Sunshine Coast
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Life Below Water: Conservation, Current Issues, Possible Solutions

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