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Australian scientists are looking for practical ways to sustainably produce red algae, known as Asparagopsis taxiformis, after a study five years ago showed it had completely abolished the natural release of methane from cows.
These crimson seaweeds grown in temperate tropical waters can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions if scientists in Australia succeed in growing them extensively.
"When less than 2% of the dry matter is added to cattle feed, these seaweeds completely eliminate methane production," Nick Paul, an aquaculture biologist from Australia's Sunshine Coast University, said in a press release.
"They contain chemicals that reduce the microbes in the bellies that cause them to burp when they eat grass."
Paul was a member of an Australian research team that in 2014 analyzed 20 different types of tropical algae to see which, if any, could reduce methane production better when feeding it to livestock.
Asparagus taxiformis was the most effective in inhibiting methane production in animals by 98.9% after only 72 hours.
|Red moss can inhibit methane production in animals by up to 98.9% after 72 hours of ingestion (Getty Images)|
Methane and global warming
Methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases and a major greenhouse gas. It comes from many sources, including livestock waste and gases.
While methane represents an overall source of atmospheric pollution much smaller than carbon dioxide, its heat-trapping potential makes it much more harmful than carbon dioxide, especially in the short term.
For 100 years, atmospheric methane is 28 times more effective in capturing heat than carbon dioxide, and in a 20-year timeframe that is thought to be more than 100 times worse.
With this kind of potential heat retention potential, and the fact that cattle are responsible for about 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that red algae can play a vital role in reducing future global warming.
The story of this exciting moss began when a farmer noticed that one of his cows, fed from a small field near the sea, had improved health, compared with cows fed with ordinary grass.
Canadian researchers from the Australian Research Service later found that cows fed near the sea had a better growth rate and health indicators than their normal food intake, as well as reduced methane in their gases.
The challenge, then, is to figure out how to increase the production and growth of these red seaweeds, or extract a chemical from them, and ensure their access to cattle feed throughout Australia, and in the long term internationally.
“These seaweeds have attracted a lot of global attention,” says Paul.
"All this is happening now, but the only missing step is to make sure that it works on a global scale, and to make sure that we can produce seaweeds sustainably."
To this end, Paul and his team are looking for ways to find optimal growth conditions for these algae, study their growth in large outdoor aquaculture tanks, and also ways to increase the concentration of active chemical compounds within seaweeds.
Producing a quantity of these herbs to feed about 10% of Australia's 1.5 million animal-producing livestock requires the cultivation of 300,000 tonnes a year, requiring an area of about 6,000 hectares.
One difficulty lies in discovering how to make algae - even those that grow densely along the Queensland coast - closer to an agricultural crop that can be harvested in other types of environments.
"The puzzle we have now is that this is not a particularly plentiful species, and we cannot harvest it from the sea," Paul told The Age newspaper. "Since we have these wonderful discoveries, we are trying to find a way to actually grow them and produce enough to make the environmental impact we seek," he said.
Studies are still underway to find the best agricultural techniques for the cultivation of this exciting red moss, and to provide optimal results for large-scale cultivation.