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A Seaweed Diet Could Cut Cows' Methane Emissions As Much As 82%, Study Finds

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Cow farts have become a surprisingly controversial topic these days. And no it is not about the ever raging debate about whether farts are funny or not; it is linked to a more serious environmental issue. Cow farts release a surprising amount of methane gas into the atmosphere.

This gas contributes to the current global greenhouse gas crisis so much that a 2006 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization report claims cows "generate more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport." But recent research suggests that we might be able to reduce this number by feeding cows seaweed.

A quick cow lesson.

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If you are reading this in North America’s heartland, or any agricultural center, I am sure you are already rolling your eyes. Unfortunately, the term cow is woefully misused. The term cow specifically refers to female cattle that have given birth to a calf. Before that time, female cattle are called heifers. The males are of course called bulls. That is unless they have been castrated, in which case they are called steers. With regard to cow farts, all cattle contribute to the problem. And this study specifically looked at steers.

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Seaweed reduces methane.

When researchers mixed seaweed into cattle feed, they found that the new diet produced 82% less methane. Ermias Kebreab, the director of the World Food Center, told The Guardian, "We now have sound evidence that seaweed in cattle diet is effective at reducing greenhouse gases and that the efficacy does not diminish over time."

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Cattle farts are caused by fiber.

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Much of a cattle’s diet is made of fiber. The cattle’s microbiome breaks down the fiber through a process like fermentation. However, this process produces methane as a by-product. But the seaweed is anti-methanogenic, so adding it to the feed reduces the amount of methane released.

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The seaweed does not affect the flavor of the meat or milk.

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The steers in the study were raised for beef production. As part of the study, the beef from steers that ate the seaweed was compared to those that did not consume any seaweed. No differences in taste or texture were found.

In a previous study, the researchers looked at the effects in dairy cows. That study also did not find that adding seaweed to feed affected the quality or taste of the milk produced.

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We can have our beef and eat it too.

A recent criticism of eating beef has been its impact on climate change. Adding seaweed to feed may help to address this concern. “There is more work to be done, but we are very encouraged by these results,” explained Breanna Roque, a Ph.D. student in the research group. “We now have a clear answer to the question of whether seaweed supplements can sustainably reduce livestock methane emissions and its long-term effectiveness.”

An additional benefit may also be the development of seaweed farms. Seaweed farming can help to remove excess nitrogen and carbon dioxide in our oceans. And it can create a new industry in impoverished regions.

The fight against cow farts might have a happy ending after all.

h/t: The Guardian

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