Observer  /  Community  /  Science

Methane-reducing seaweed asparagopsis up for sale after years of research

Original publication by Angus Mackintosh for abc.net.au on 20 June 2022

Trials show methane emissions from cattle can be reduced significantly with just a small amount of the native seaweed.
(Supplied: CSIRO)

After years of frantic research and fast-tracked commercial licensing, cattle feedlots can now buy asparagopsis, a native Australian seaweed touted to reduce methane emissions by “90 to 95 per cent” when fed to cows and sheep.

The first global sale of asparagopsis was announced this month by CH4, one of three businesses licensed to sell the feed additive in Australia.

South Australian meat processor CirPro was the buyer.

“We’re very proud that we are the first to be able to announce a commercial supply to the marketplace,” CH4 Australia general manager Adam Main said.

Asparagopsis has been the subject of numerous research trials and a fast-tracked commercialisation effort since it was first identified as a way to reduce ruminant animals’ methane emissions.

CirPro chief Reg Smythe said the Port Pirie facility set to receive the asparagopsis would be fully operational next year.

Key Points:

  • Seller CH4 says it will look to develop markets in Australia, New Zealand and overseas
  • The industry could be worth billions a year
  • Research suggests that very little of the additive is required to drastically reduce the emissions from livestock

“We’re starting at relatively small numbers and growing in line with CH4’s ability to manufacture the supplement,” he said.

Ruminants including cows, sheep and goats produce methane through digestion, which is responsible for about 10 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the CSIRO.

CH4 Australia’s Adam Main (left) and CH4 Global chief executive Steve Meller.
(Supplied: CH4 Global)

Seaweed for sale

The sale comes after four years of research and development by the CSIRO, Meat and Livestock Australia and James Cook University.

The asparagopsis feed additive was patented in 2020 and production was rapidly scaled up.

Mr Main said CH4 would exclusively deal with large-scale feedlots and meat processors before expanding its offering to other types of farm in the future.

“We’re focusing on the feedlot industry here in Australia, but our operation in New Zealand is definitely looking at the dairy market,” he said.

“We have the opportunity of expansion from this point forward to focus on sheep, goats, camels … anything that is a ruminant.

“We need to also grow to be able to provide our technology to those animals that are seeing people less and aren’t supplementary fed — that is the broadacre farming sector.”

Australia first?

The international patent rights to sell asparagopsis as a feed additive are held by FutureFeed, an offshoot of the government-owned CSIRO with private backing from Woolworths Group, GrainCorp, Harvest Road and Sparklabs Cultiv8.

Licences to grow and sell the seaweed, which is endemic to Australia and New Zealand, have been granted overseas.

If its emission-reducing potential is realised, the international commercial market for asparagopsis could be worth billions of dollars per year.

While Australian producers have the first-mover advantage, the international licensees, including CH4, are working on producing it overseas.

“The supply for all of the cattle and all of the sheep [in Australia] could come from South Australia,” Mr Main said.

“The focus should always be – and it is for me – to make an industry here that can meet Australia’s needs but also be a major exporter.

“However, to have the full reach to get this to as many cows as possible in a short time, we are looking to replicate this elsewhere in the world.”

The distinct red seaweed is endemic to Australian waters.
(Supplied: Sea Forest)

Work in progress

Research suggests very little asparagopsis needs to be included in a ruminant animal’s feed for its methane emissions to plummet.

“Say a cow’s dry matter intake is 14 kilos a day,”Mr Main said.

“The amount of seaweed we’d need to give it is less than a squash ball — it’s 50 grams.”

Managing how much asparagopsis an animal consumes is difficult outside a feedlot, as is measuring how much the feed additive actually reduces methane emissions on a farm.

Meat and Livestock Australia is continuing work on a range of tools and technologies for producers to cost-effectively reduce emissions and increase productivity by demonstrating environmental stewardship credentials, managing director Jason Strong said.

Those credentials could ultimately take the form of marketing for meat products or government-backed carbon credits.

“The technology is in review at the moment by the Emissions Reduction Fund to be accepted by the government’s carbon credit scheme,” Mr Main said.

“We’re not relying on carbon credit schemes but we think it will be part of the mix overall,” Mr Smythe said.

“There will have to be some auditing and we will be making that information available through traceability tools.”

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