Fed to cattle, could seaweed help save the earth? Maybe a little bit!

Around the Nation

by Tom Van Dusen

Feeding seaweed to ruminant livestock as part of the solution in reducing greenhouse gas?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, the potential has been confirmed in a thorough scientific survey, results of which were released just last month by University of California. The overall finding was that feeding ruminants some seaweed could reduce bad gas as much as 82 per cent.

The topic came up during an Earth Day (April 22) webinar sponsored by the Rideau Environmental Action League (REAL) featuring three speakers addressing regenerative farming techniques as a means of curbing damage to ecosystems.

Introduced by retired Smiths Falls farmer John Joynt, the panelists included: Myra Van Die, research associate with the Smart Prosperity Institute; Doug Savage, North American Editor with Holstein International magazine and Level 2 Holstein judge; and Carlos Alvarado, born and raised in Ontario with agricultural roots in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, who sees regenerative agriculture as a possible method for resolving the climate crisis.

It was left to Alvarado to explain regenerative practices: Less soil disturbance, more plant diversity, retain living roots in the ground at all times, and keep soil covered with mulch, residues or alternate crops. Alvarado and other proponents are advocating an alternative “human/land relationship” centered on nurturing plants to exude sugars through roots to soil microbes which, in return, relay nutrients back into the plants.

As for weeds, Alvarado says learn to live with them rather than destroy them because many provide beneficial ground cover.

It was Merrickville’s Savage who’s also a sheep farmer expecting some 500 Rideau Arcott lambs this spring who raised the seaweed solution, practiced to some extend in his native Australia. While still somewhat impractical, ocean seaweed farming is expanding in China and in other parts of the world.

As part of traditional feeding practices, sheep and cattle, er, “emit” methane most of which heads straight up to join the layer of greenhouse gas encircling the globe… a major cause of climate change.

The U of C study contends evidence now exists that seaweed added to cattle diets is effective at reducing methane and that its efficacy doesn’t decline over time. It could help farmers sustainably produce beef and dairy products needed to feed the world.

Researchers added minimal amounts of seaweed to the diets of 21 beef cattle over five months and tracked weight gain and methane emissions. They gained as much weight as their herd mates during the same period while “burping” 82 per cent less methane.

Emissions are part and parcel of diets consisting primarily of forages like grass and hay. Seaweed inhibits an enzyme in a ruminant’s digestive system that contributes to methane production. Taste tests found no difference in the flavour of seaweed-fed beef or in the taste of milk.

REAL’s Peter Au organized the Zoom session on regenerative farming. A retired Smiths Falls high school science teacher, for Au no topic could be more suitable on Earth Day which had as theme: “Restore Our Earth”, with a focus on natural processes and emerging green technologies.

“We see a lot of benefits when we mimic Nature… or if you prefer, God, or The Universe, or Mother Earth… she knows what she’s doing,” Au maintains.

Agricultural practices should mimic Nature in order to restore ecosystems as well as secure and improve food and water resources for future generations. Right now, Au contends, we’re headed in the opposite direction: “Imagine a world where the soil doesn’t have nutrients and water isn’t absorbed and retained: This would be the demise of humanity.”

Benefits of regenerative agriculture include higher profitability, increased nutrient content in food, greater water cycling in local ecosystems, enhanced resilience to fluctuating climate, sequestration of atmospheric carbon, and soil regeneration rather than degradation.

Savage suggested there should be government incentives to encourage farmers to sequester more carbon in the soil.

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