There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprint, from eating less meat to voting for candidates that take the challenge of climate change seriously. One facet of this phenomenon that is rarely acknowledged, however, is the emissions produced by cattle. Specifically, they fart and burp up a considerable amount of methane. In fact, 90 percent of their methane comes from the latter.
Just as we know that burning coal produces ghastly amounts of carbon dioxide, we know that common cattle feed when digested generates a lot of methane. With this in mind, researchers have discovered a specific type of seaweed that, when fed to cattle, reduces their methane emissions by almost three-quarters.
Maintaining and producing cattle is responsible for producing 7.1 billion tonnes (7.8 billion tons) of equivalent carbon dioxide per year, representing 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. About 3.1 billion tonnes (3.4 billion tons) of this comes in the form of methane, emitted out of either the beginning or end of their digestive systems.
Although it breaks down far faster than carbon dioxide, methane is at least 28-36 times more effective at trapping heat within our atmosphere, which makes it incredibly dangerous with regards to climate change. This makes cattle a serious threat in this respect, and as reported by The Conversation, researchers from James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland have tried out a novel way of combatting it.
A study published back in 2015 revealed that a particular type of Australian seaweed – Asparagopsis taxiformis – could reduce methane emissions by 99 percent, according to laboratory tests. The team from JCU decided to put this into practice and fed a bunch of sheep this particular plant. Remarkably, replacing just 2 percent of their normal diet with this seaweed leads them to produce up to 70 percent less methane over a continuous 72-day period of time.
Is this seaweed a key weapon in the fight against belch-based climate change? Jean-Pascal Quod/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0
“When the seaweed is harvested it is dried, and it can be added as a sprinkle essentially to the diet, just as you would add a mixture of herbs and spices to the chicken,” Rocky De Nys, a professor of aquaculture at JCU, told ABC News.
It appears that this seaweed species contains a compound called bromoform, one that blocks methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at a later stage of the process. The enzymes that are normally employed by the gut that usually produce methane as a byproduct are disrupted by this chemical reaction, and are mostly unable to do so.
There are many millions of cattle around the world that would require a new, expensive, and complex agricultural effort to supply them all with their new dietary supplement. Hypothetically, though, this vegetable-based plan could prevent the world’s most dangerous burps from scorching the planet.