Scientists have claimed adding seaweed to cow feed could reduce methane gas emissions to meet climate goals, but this plan is flawed says Dr Alex Lockwood.

Last week, writing for Surge, Dr Alex Lockwood set about scrutinising the NFU’s ‘unimplementable’ Net Zero strategy and all its many flaws. One of the tactics mentioned in Pillar 1 of the plan is what was at the time of publishing a pretty tenuous assertion that giving animals – cows in particular – certain feed additives would reduce their biological ‘emissions’ of methane, a major greenhouse gas (GHG).

As Dr Lockwood pointed out, the research to support this belief was by far conclusive: Over the last decade, results have been inconclusive and mostly negative. Research from 2011 showed that “the decrease in methane production was not evident when methane emission was expressed per kilogram of milk produced.” A 2017 summary of research from the University of Reading stated “more research is required” as “a whole ecosystem within the cow, including hundreds of different species of microbes, has evolved over thousands of years. Removing one group of microbes affects others and can negatively impact the whole digestive process.”

While methane is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, it is more than 25-30 times as effective in trapping heat on a 100-year timescale and 86 times more potent on a 20-year timescale, meaning that its contribution to climate change via greenhouse gases and global warming cannot be underestimated. And thanks to documentaries like Cowspiracy, the wealth of academic opinion in recent years, and the work of environmental campaign groups like Greenpeace and the WWF, attention has really been drawn to animal agriculture as a major contributor to the climate crisis that we’re now facing.

So it is little wonder that animal agriculture is hugely interested in any research that could solve this problem for them, such as a recent publication in the the Plos One journal which found that giving cows the Asparagopsis taxiformis seaweed resulted in them belching out 82 per cent less methane over 147 days.

Also, apparently, “no differences were found in average daily gain (ADG), carcass quality, strip loin proximate analysis and shear force, or consumer taste preferences” meaning that the additives didn’t change the size of the cows or the quality of their flesh when tasted. To all intents and purposes, this is a dream come true for the cow flesh and dairy industries – no more pesky climate change accusations and all of the end product.
However, before they celebrate too much, there are a few flies in the ointment. Firstly, as Dr Lockwood says, additive works by surprising certain enzymes, yet we have no long-term research to show what effect this could have on the entire digestive system and the rest of a cow’s body.

And then there’s the practicalities of feeding cows seaweed when earlier research shows that they may not like the taste above a certain amount. Plus there just isn’t an abundance of naturally occurring Asparagopsis taxiformis, meaning that a new industry would have to be created to grow, harvest and process it into a commercial product. According to The Counter:

It’s not clear that cows will actually eat it. Apparently, it doesn’t taste great. Once it hits about 0.75 percent of an animal’s diet, the animal starts eating less. Even if all these issues were resolved and farmers everywhere wanted to start their herds on a seaweed-heavy diet today, they likely couldn’t. There simply isn’t enough Asparagopsis taxiformis growing on the planet to feed every single cow a little bit every day.

Methane from cow burps and farts is just part of the problem when it comes to animal agriculture’s impact on the planet. Granted, it’s a big piece, but there are others too, such as emissions from farming equipment, water use, deforestation to create grazing land and for soy production, habitat encroachment, and so on.
While the cows may not flatulate as much, they’ll certainly still take up a disproportionate amount of space. In the US, beef production only provides three per cent of the population’s caloric intake, yet uses around a half of the country’s agricultural land, some 692,918 square kilometres of which could be used for other purposes such as ecosystem restoration or less harmful plant-based farming, if every American ate beans instead of beef according to Chatham House.

Indeed if all the pasture land in not only the US but the rest of world too was restored to natural vegetation i.e. rewilded, over eight billion tons of carbon dioxide would be removed from the atmosphere each year – around 15 per cent of the world’s total GHG emissions – according to Joseph Poore, lead author of a 2018 study by the University of Oxford and who also said publicly that shifting to a vegan diet was the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet.

This study published in Science found that the “impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change” with beef responsible for 36 times more land usage than plant proteins such as peas. Take tofu as an alternative protein source for example, which is made from soy – producing 100g of protein from tofu requires little over 2 square meters of land, compared to 164 square meters for the same amount of protein from beef, making soy 75 times more efficient as a protein source when it comes to land usage.

And then there’s the tricky issue of eutrophication – when water becomes enriched by nutrients from agriculture resulting in increased production of algae and catastrophic changes to aquatic ecosystems – and soil acidification for which beef production is of the biggest agricultural contributors.

As we reported last month, a report by influential think tank Chatham House on the ‘three pillars’ necessary to truly address the loss of biodiversity caused by our food consumption, agrees with the findings of Poore from the University of Oxford and other academics and leading thinkers when it comes to animal agriculture, stating that:

Global dietary patterns need to converge around diets based more on plants, owing to the disproportionate impact of animal farming on biodiversity, land use and the environment.

And also: The protection of land from conversion or exploitation is the most effective way of preserving biodiversity, so we need to avoid converting land for agriculture. Restoring native ecosystems on spared agricultural land offers the opportunity to increase biodiversity.

“Why treat animals this way when we know that removing cows from the farming system will meet most of the sector’s climate change reduction targets?”

To quote Dr Lockwood one last time, when it comes to using cows to test unknown technologies, “Why treat animals this way when we know that removing cows from the farming system will meet most of the sector’s climate change reduction targets?”

Why indeed. Sadly, the answer is that we are looking for any justification to continue our destructive patterns. Rather than simply stop eating dead cows and drinking their breast milk, we choose instead to continue exploiting them because it’s what we’ve always done. Raising cows for food is totally illogical when the resources necessary to do so could be better spent in other ways.

All the land, all the water, all the feed, purely to turn plants into flesh and calories for us to then consume when we could just eat the plants themselves.

When all is said and done, feeding cows seaweed does not bypass the ethical problem. Cows as sentient beings have a right to live their lives, and no amount of seaweed is going to grant them their freedom.

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