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A South Australian aquaculture project to grow livestock feed from algae will drastically reduce the amount of methane produced by cows. But experts warn the Morrison government is using scientific solutions to greenwash the meat industry. By Max Opray.

Could a seaweed diet for cows really reduce methane emissions?

Dr Adam Main with a sample of cultivated Asparagopsis seaweed.
Credit: CH4 Global

Every January, divers plunge into the still waters off Port Victoria in South Australia carrying spear guns and competing to be crowned that year’s Butterfish King.

The contest represents a continuation of the spearfishing traditions of the Narungga people, known as “the butterfish mob”. For millennia the Narungga have been diving into the Spencer Gulf to spear the fish they call Gynburra, which venture in on the tide to eat seaweed that clings to the reef, including the red algae Asparagopsis armata.

“When you’re hunting in the water you see it – a beautiful red foxtail algae,” says Narungga man Garry Goldsmith, founder of the Gynburra festival and business manager at the Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation. “We’ve always had a connection with where it grows in sea Country ... we hope now with Asparagopsis that we can care not just for our own Country, but to influence the entire world.”

The Gynburra festival site in 2022 will have a new neighbour – an aquaculture operation harvesting the algae at scale to feed livestock. Inspired by local mussel farming techniques, the algae is grown on ropes and harvested by boat, and then sent to a processing facility in Adelaide.

The development is part of a new global industry borne out of the observations of a farmer on Prince Edward Island in Canada, who noticed that his cattle grazing on dredged seaweed seemed more productive. Investigating this claim, environmental scientist Dr Rob Kinley discovered that not only were the farmer’s cattle healthier, they also belched out about 20 per cent less methane.

Kinley immediately recognised the significance of this finding – methane is a key driver of the climate crisis, more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide and accounting for about a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Canadian scientist set out on a global mission to discover the seaweed with the most powerful methane-inhibiting properties, which led him to a lab at James Cook University in Queensland, where in 2014 he tested native Australian varieties.

When Kinley ran samples for Asparagopsis, he assumed there had been some kind of mistake. “I couldn’t find any methane in there at all,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I’d thought a 20 per cent reduction in emissions was fantastic, 50 per cent seemed not possible; but to reduce cattle methane emissions 100 per cent, well, I thought you would have to get the rifle out and shoot the cow.”

On the back of funding from Meat & Livestock Australia, Kinley worked to commercialise the technology as the chief scientist at FutureFeed, a spinoff company from CSIRO. In practice, Kinley found cows didn’t enjoy the taste of Asparagopsis at high enough concentrations to eliminate methane, but even in the low quantities at which they find it palatable the additive removes more than 80 per cent of methane emissions.

Yet when 104 countries pledged at the COP26 climate conference to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce bragged that Australia had refused to sign. He said this was one of the conditions he had put on the Nationals supporting a target of net zero by 2050.

The Morrison government on Wednesday announced $500 million for a fund to commercialise new low-emissions technologies, with livestock feed flagged as an example of the kind of innovation that could secure backing.

CH4 Global, which holds the licence to roll out FutureFeed’s livestock feed additive, is critical of Australia’s refusal to sign the pledge. Adam Main, who is the Australian general manager of the Silicon Valley start-up, called for more federal government investment in agtech research and to help farmers incorporate the feed into their operations.

“It’s unfortunate that Australia ... will potentially be yet again five to 10 years behind,” Main tells The Saturday Paper. “The Australian government will hopefully realise that this is all happening despite them, but they’re learning about this as a solution – there’s just a lag and delay in providing support to farmers and processors.”

Goldsmith praises Main and CH4 Global for their work nurturing the industry on Narungga land, and is effusive about the support offered by the South Australian government. When asked about the federal government’s role, however, he is more circumspect.

“I won’t make any comment on that just yet,” he says. “It’s really encouraging to see those countries sign on to the methane pledge. Obviously the federal government has to look at what their priorities are … hopefully our industry can give them confidence to sign on, knowing they have a clear pathway.”

Agricultural sustainability experts warn that focusing on solutions such as low-emissions feed alone cannot mitigate the climate impact of livestock. A new study by The Breakthrough Institute found that with existing technological fixes, including emerging feed additives, emissions from United States beef production would drop by only 18 per cent by 2030.

New York University assistant professor Matthew Hayek, an environmental expert who consulted on the report, says that amount is likely to be even lower for Australia, as US livestock are largely fed in feedlots where low-methane additives can be administered, whereas Australian cattle mostly graze on pasture. “This should sober that miraculous view that we feed cows one thing and that problem goes away.”

Hayek tells The Saturday Paper that low-methane feed could help contribute to emissions reductions, but he worries that it is instead being used to justify the continuation of current levels of meat consumption in the US and Australia –two of the highest per-capita beef consumers on the planet.

In addition to methane, livestock operations generate carbon dioxide emissions through deforestation. Pastureland and crop production for livestock use up 77 per cent of all farmed land, but produce less than 20 per cent of global calories. Hayek suggests pursuing policies to shift consumption patterns – for instance, by reducing purchases of beef in government food procurement.

“What we need to do in food systems is like what we need to do in energy systems across the board, which is rapidly deploy the solutions we have now,” Hayek says. “One of the solutions happens to not be a technology at all – it’s just eating less meat, substituting it with healthy and diverse but predominantly plant-based food.”

The minister for Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, has come down hard on any idea of changing consumption patterns. In an op-ed for The Australian, he claimed Labor wanted to shift Australians onto plant-based diets, and that the party has been infiltrated by Greens with “extremist” views. “What activists in Australia and elsewhere want is an end to the beef industry,” Taylor warned.

Labor and the Greens have also claimed that the focus on meat is a misdirect, saying that it gives cover to the substantial methane emissions generated by coal and gas. “This pledge isn’t about cow farts or having a steak sandwich,” said Greens leader Adam Bandt. “It isn’t about protecting farmers; it’s about protecting fracking.”

Grattan Institute climate expert Tony Wood noted that Australian beef consumption is on the decline in any case. “Angus Taylor is almost making it a badge of courage for Australians that we’re going to eat more meat ... I’m not suggesting to close the meat industry, but we can’t ignore emissions from cattle.”

Kinley, the inventor of the livestock feed solution, is happy to sit out of the politics surrounding how it is put to use. He is focused instead on commercialising the technology. Kinley says he is “the science guy” and that it is up to others to decide how his invention is used. But he hopes it can provide a boost both to the environment and to jobs in places like Narungga country.

“We provide the tools that offer options in reduction of methane,” Kinley says. “Those tools can be used as applicable – we don’t determine how that is.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "A question of cow".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.