Sun. Nov 28th, 2021

Scientists are combing Ireland’s west coast for seaweed to feed cattle and sheep after research showed it could prevent them from exhaling so much global warming methane.

The project, coordinated by a state agricultural body, takes advantage of the country’s growing seaweed rust industry, which seeks new markets because it revives centuries-old traditions.

But some are skeptical that seaweed feed additives – or any rapid technological solution – could reverse the need to reverse a boom in Irish cattle numbers if the country wants to reduce Europe’s largest per capita methane production by 2030.

About 20 species of seaweed, most of Ireland’s windswept Atlantic coast, have been tested by researchers while dozens more have been collected by the project’s partners in Norway, Canada, Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Scientists in the United States and Australia have already shown dramatic methane-reducing properties of one type of seaweed – Asparagopsis – when small amounts are added to the raw material.

But they have not yet succeeded in scaling up the production of seaweed, which is not easy to grow in northwestern Europe.

The Irish project aims to find abundant native seaweeds to use instead, although the researchers acknowledge that it is unlikely to match the reduction in emissions of more than 80 percent shown with Asparagopsis.

Researchers are also working on how to integrate the feed additives into Ireland’s mainly grass-based cattle farming system.

‘A big market’

On a farm outside Hillsborough, southwest of Belfast, researchers use treats to lure cows to stick their heads in a solar-powered machine that measures the level of methane on their breath.

They will test them again using seaweed additives, said Sharon Huws, a professor of animal science and microbiology at Queen’s University Belfast.

“The levels used to feed ruminants are very, very small, so you don’t have to get much of it to make an impact,” she said.

The Irish researchers used a network of seaweed poachers that revived a tradition mentioned in monastic writings as far back as the 5th century.

But they do not yet have a plan to scale up production if testing is successful.

Some harvesters, who serve organic food and cosmetic markets, doubt whether the feed additives will be profitable enough with many opportunities elsewhere.

“It’s a big market right now, seaweed is really thriving,” says Evan Talty, managing director at Wild Irish Seaweeds, which has revived the harvesting techniques used by its grandfather and focuses on food and skin care products. The methane additive market is “not on our radar”, he said.

Others are more hopeful.

“Everyone is watching,” said Jenny O’Halloran of Bláth na Mara, a small-scale handcuffer on Inis Mór Island off Ireland’s west coast.

“Maybe the future of it is actually farming seaweed, which I think should be part of the conversation when it comes to the future of seaweed in Ireland,” she said.

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