Methane produced by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for approximately 3% of recent global warming, while agriculture as a whole is responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. There are promising solutions on the horizon to the methane problem that are likely to be available by the end of the decade. These solutions include changing both the practices and theories of food production. Going forward,the problem of food on Earth is about quality, not quantity.
I grew up on the coast of New England, and have many familiar thoughts of the seaweed that season- ally washes up by the ton on our beaches each year. The smells, and slimes, the red and green and brown algal free-floating nomads, and the others holding
on tight to rocks and shells, staking out their posi- tions in the tidal flows. I don’t remember thinking of these aquatic plants as potential food for people or cows. However, there is a long history of New Eng- land farmers using seaweeds as fertilizer and live- stock fodder, and an even longer history on Earth of people eating the greens of the seas ourselves.
In January of 2016, Australian researchers reported on some in vitro experiments with the red alga, Asparagopsis taxiformis, that showed that as a supplement accounting for 2% by weight of a cow’s diet, the algae could reduce ruminant methane emissions by up to 99%. This exciting finding was followed up by reports coming out in September
that year, that in vivo, live sheep experiments showed similar promise, with up to 80% reductions in methane emissions in animals. The latest research published just this year again shows that 80% of methane emissions can similarly be eliminated from healthy beef steer in real farm settings, and that the steaks taste great.
What is the exact enzymatic mechanism inhibiting methane formation?
Bromoform (like chloroform, but with bromine in place of chlorine) produced by the alga inhibits methane formation in the ruminant gut. As a result, the cows produce more propionate, a larger mole- cule than methane, which animals can further digest and get more energy from. Some evidence suggests that cows can potentially grow more and faster on the same amount of feed when the alga is used as a supplement.
Over the past 20 years an explosion of research into enteric methane inhibition has included trials of vac- cines to eliminate methanogens from the gut, and
the development of food supplements that contain chemical inhibitors of methanogenesis that prevent methane formation even when methanogenic organ- isms are present.
The idea of a medicine, vaccine or food supplement that can lower or even eliminate methane production from ruminants is rapidly becoming a reality. For organic farmers, there is the possibility that wild harvested and farmed organic food supplements made from Asparagopsis taxiformis and other macro algae with natural antimicrobial properties and the ability to inhibit methane generation will soon be available to provide the same benefits.
Why is this big news?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute, agriculture is responsible for 11 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and around the globe. The methane released by ruminants including cows, sheep and buffalo is responsible for about a third of all of these agricultural GHG emissions, meaning that the methane from our animals is ultimately responsible for three to four percent of all global warming.
Your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year
To put things in perspective, your average cow belches 220 lb of methane into the atmosphere each year. Since methane is 25 to 28 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, this is the global warming equivalent of pumping
3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per head per year. When you add it all up, you’re talking about gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
What ends up in the atmosphere also can’t become meat. If cows could digest that extra amount of energy instead of releasing it to the atmosphere, mass balance calculations suggest it could also mean gigatons of extra food produced each year – just by adding algae to animal feed.
Depending on who’s counting, there are something like one or one and a half billion cows on this planet, and a billion or so sheep. Further, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are 570 million farms in the world, most of them small family operations.
So, the ruminant methane issue is not a point-source pollution problem, and it is not an easy one to solve. If there is any solution to the problem of methane from animals on this planet, it is going to take a huge communications strategy among the world’s farmers. We would need to sell each other on this – try it out, share stories – and look for long-term health impacts in our herds.
My farm is on Tug Hill in Oneida County NY. I raise a small flock of sheep that I use for meat and wool. I also grow potatoes and garlic, and make cheese using milk from local organic dairy farms that raise cows. For Creative Shepherd Farm, and other farms of the Northeast, perhaps some global warming is actually a good thing. My fields are snow covered from mid November through the end of March, and I can easily store water for summer irrigation. As the years go by, productivity for us will likely go up as our Earth warms.
However, I also work with organic farmers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and growers in Ecuador in South America where the changing weather patterns precipitated by climate change are anything but helpful to them. As hurricanes strengthen, droughts lengthen and intensify and as seasonal rainfall patterns are becoming less predictable, farmers in these regions are having a harder time maintaining organic agricultural systems. It is clear that we can’t continue to do things in the manner of the past 100 years, driving global weather patterns to greater extremes, and expect national and global stability to result.
Many people have suggested that eating less meat, or no meat is the direction we need to go on this planet. Practically speaking this is neither a dominant consumer perspective, nor is it the direction the world is headed in terms of consumer demand. We are eating more animal protein on this planet than ever, with the gain coming mostly from an increase in poultry production and consumption.
However, the world is still asking valid questions: “Should we even be eating meat?”
“How is it ethical to raise animals for food?” “Can we grow meat in laboratories instead?” “How can we justify the continued use and expansion of live animals in our food system that causes so much harm to our ecosystems?”
Livestock farmers who love their herds and their way of life need answers to these questions that validate their continued existence. Organic farm- ers are particularly in need of solutions, because it
is grass-fed cows and sheep that produce the most methane. By some estimates, grass-fed animals on pasture and range can produce up to three times the methane of cows fed optimized corn and soy based diets in controlled feed systems.
For me, as a livestock farmer in particular, the responsibility to change my farming practice is one I can not overlook. A lot of us have gotten into the idea that local food systems can help us in this challenge; that if we just buy food from farms that are close to where we live, we can solve a big part of the problem with the food system, but it’s just not that simple.
Half of the Earth’s usable land is in agriculture right now, more than ever before, and it is mostly being used to grow animals. We use only 19% of our agricultural land to grow the vegetables and grains that people eat. The rest is grassland, and fodder crop land to support animal production, which you can see in figure 1. Not indicated in this diagram are the approximately 1% of the 12.6 billion total acres of land used for agriculture currently in production of biofuels.
Consider also, that only about eight percent of all the energy used to produce food and get it to consumers is in the transportation. Almost all of the energy and even more critically, the carbon footprint of agriculture is in the production. It
is in the fuel for tractors, the energy used to produce petrochemical herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for use in conventional production systems, and in the methane coming from our ruminants as they eat and grow. So being a local food farmer who raises organic livestock doesn’t help solve the problem of global warming at all.
Peripherally, but important to think about at the same time, is that for 50 years the problem of hun- ger on Earth has been one of politics, not produc- tion. In 1999, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper called World Food Trends and Prospects to 2025, Tim Dyson worried hard that food might potentially be scarce on Earth by now. Granted, he came to the conclusion that we’d probably be ok, but look at what actually hap- pened. Less people on the planet are hungry today than in 1999, even though we have 1.6 billion more people than we did at the turn of the century.
What local and organic food does bring us is the opportunity to eat healthier, fresher, more flavorful foods and to build communities and circular economies. These things will help us be economically and socially sustainable going forward, but they will not bring us environmental sustainability.
Many organic farmers and their customers value the leaner meats, more healthy animals, and natural rotational grazing systems of our operations for their aesthetic and human health benefits, but we have to be honest about the external impacts of the decision to raise grass-fed animals on pasture and range. This organic practice, as it is now, is far from environ- mentally sustainable.
The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots. For all the instinctual revulsion we organic farmers have to those industrial processes and sys- tems, they are, just like when humans concentrate in cities and have smaller carbon footprints, more efficient, and better for the global carbon budget.
So what are we doing about the methane problem?
Well, the race is on in Australia, California, Vietnam and Portugal to find the best way to farm Aspara- gopsis taxiformis. It can be grown on ropes floating on the surface of open lagoons, but the alga requires a rapid flushing rate, so these lagoons need to be in the ocean, where tidal currents bathe the plant in constantly refreshed water. Ponds on land will not work. It can be grown in the lab, or industrially controlled facilities, but the expense of doing so is much greater than the potential value of the feedstock, even if there is a world price on carbon production, as there may be someday.
Perhaps the most promising source of the potential feed supplement will turn out to be the ocean itself. It was the worldwide weedy behavior of Asparagopsis taxiformis that first caught the world’s attention in the 1970’s, as warming oceans helped the red algae expand out of its historical tropical range north into the Mediterranean, and other waters where it had been a minor ecological player previously.
The dirty secret is that grass-fed cows produce more methane than cows eating corn and soy meal at feedlots
Earlier research into Asparagopsis taxiformis was focussed primarily on its role as an invasive species. But, in the 1990s, several different classes of active biochemical compounds produced by the alga were identified, and since then, the potential applications of this marine plant have been at the center of research on the organism.
There are three big questions when it comes to using natural nutritional food supplements like macroalgae with livestock. First, how will it be grown and harvested sustainably, economically (and organically)? Second, how can it be fed to grazing livestock in a way that makes it work effectively? Third, are these supplements safe for the long-term health of ruminants? If researchers work fast enough to answer these questions, it is likely that we will have broad access to these supplements for use by the end of the decade.
Over the coming decades, farmers have to figure out how to eliminate GHG emissions from their systems. This means we need to find alternative energy sources for fossil fuels and eliminate methane emissions from our livestock systems. Continued improvements in global farm productivity and shifts toward poultry and away from red meat mean that we are likely to never have to use more land on this planet for agriculture than we do today. From a geographic perspective, agriculture on Earth never has to be a net growth industry again. We could grow enough food calories and nutrients for 100 billion people on the agricultural lands we have now with current technologies and quantities of energy inputs.
So now, for all of us, the problem of food is not quantity but quality and distribution.
Once we recognize that food quantity is not the problem, we are left with nutrition and flavor to deal with, and making sure the practices are not adversely affecting our environment. In Maslow’s thinking, we have solved the problem of need, at least on a mass balance basis, so now we need to fulfill our wants.
What do we want? Food that prevents us from having to go to the doctor. Food that tastes good. Food that’s easy to cook. Variety. Rich countries have way more variety in their diets than impoverished nations. The next era in food will be about these things. Look at research over the last decade into tomatoes. The growth in research is off the charts. And it’s all about nutrition and flavor.
Sebastian Interlandi is an organic farmer who is interested in seeing the creation of a sustainable food system. He works with farmers all over the western hemisphere, and wants to be doing his own work without heating up and polluting the planet. He works in many ag sectors including business, not for profit and education. He is currently a Visiting Associate Professor Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He owns his own 85 acre farm in Oneida County, NY where he mainly raise sheep and grows potatoes.
Resource: Growing Seaweed Offers Opportunities, and Challenges for Coastal Growers, The Natural Farmer,