Research published in 2016, as reported by the Washington Post, showed that feeding cattle is a common red macroalgae with the scientific name Asparagopsis taxiformis could significantly reduce greenhouse gas production. Very clearly.
While it may seem impractical to either graze cattle in coastal bays or send trainloads of red algae across the country to cattle feeding grounds, the good news here is that the algae do not have to completely replace grass or grain to achieve the beneficial effects. Tests carried out at Australia’s national science agency CSIRO fed cows a diet that contained only 0.2% red algae and reduced methane production by 98%. Since the average cow eats about 55 pounds of feed per day on a dry basis, this means their red macroalgae intake is only about a tenth of a pound, which makes the amount of red algae needed seem remarkably possible.
It does this while actually helping cattle use their other foods more efficiently as it helps optimize the process by which bacteria ferment grains and grass. The cattle grow faster and produce less gas.
And there is a secondary benefit: rearing the algae itself can also be good for the air and water. CSIRO has developed methods by which growing red seaweed, if used correctly, can help sequester additional carbon and reduce ocean acidification.
All of this makes red algae a huge improvement over other proposed supplements that only reduce methane by 20-40% while the supplement must make up a much higher percentage of the beef diet. Or in the case of Pennsylvania state research requires feeding cattle a chemical supplement.
Previous research has also shown that it is successful in breeding related red algae in brackish ponds in areas as far as northern Sweden. This opens up the possibility that the required amounts of the complementary crop may not have to be transported from coastal areas to inland ranching regions – which itself would be a source of greenhouse gases. Instead, the relatively small amounts of algae needed can be grown in pools or ponds near the required locations.
Asparagopsis taxiformis will definitely not solve the way cattle occupy almost a quarter of all ice-free land. It won’t address the trillion gallons of water they use every year. It won’t do much to provide the grain that is now going to cattle to hungry people. However, if the data from the fieldwork holds, it could reduce greenhouse gas production by cattle by a really significant amount, while opening up a new industry that could itself help sequester additional carbon. And that’s something.
This is early research. The benefits could be much less dramatic on a large scale, and as we’ve seen with recent vaccine trials, expanding this research on a large scale means taking careful steps to ensure that this application is safe for the marine areas where The Reds Macroalgae are grown, the cattle who eat these macroalgae and the people who eat the cattle (or consume their dairy products).
What is in the actual Green New Deal is a pursuit of agriculture that is truly sustainable and compatible with maintaining a low carbon footprint. This call for sustainability is repeated in Joe Biden’s politics. What form a sustainable system ultimately takes is worked out by farmers, regulators, researchers – and perhaps most of all, consumers. That red macroalgae from the ocean are turning out to be part of the solution for cattle raised on farms in the Midwest seems a reach, but it could also turn out to be part of how understanding the planet as a whole helps us to deal with one of the many moving parts of the overall picture.