Why aren’t more cows eating seaweed?


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John Statton with asparagopsis taxiformis in holding tanks at Watermans Bay

Asparagopsis is a native Australian seaweed rich in bromoform. It’s the bromoform compound within the seaweed feed supplement that reduces livestock methane emissions by up to 98 per cent. So why isn’t Asparagopsis a commodity of large scale? One of the key issues is its availability; but one scientist is on the brink of a discovery which could drive a surge in demand for this seaweed biomass.

Asparagopsis could become the ‘wheat crop’ of Australia’s oceans, and is the key to a world first, carbon neutral meat, grown and processed here in Australia. However currently, there are no clear aquaculture methods or well-developed supply chains to reliably scale-up production.

AgriFutures Australia’s Emerging Industries Program is funding a trial for new cultivation techniques to help catapult this industry forward. University of Western Australia’s Dr John Statton is the lead researcher of the ‘Developing Asparagopsis cultivation at scale for rapid industry growth’ project, and his team are developing and refining cultivation techniques to reliably produce Asparagopsis seed stock to fast-track the product to market.

“At the moment there is a reliance on wild harvest of Asparagopsis but in some parts of Australia, the wild capture carrying capacity is either unknown or too small to be commercially viable. We just can’t access the tonnage we need to service the livestock industry. We have been able to develop small commercial quantities of seaweed juveniles in the lab which could be cultivated within production infrastructure,” said Dr Statton.

And there is an added win for offshore aquaculture producers.

“We’ve got the seaweed to grow on ropes and substrates in our lab trials which presents an opportunity for some aquaculture groups to diversify. You could use the infrastructure of existing pearl or mussel farms, put the Asparagopsis out there and just set and forget. They don’t need to be fed like fish, or cleaned like pearl shells. And the seaweed helps absorb other nutrients. You just leave them there and they dominate.”

The other aspect of the project is looking at how environmental conditions can influence the concentration of bromoform.

John Statton with asparagopsis taxiformis in holding tanks at Watermans Bay
John Statton with Asparagopsis taxiformis in holding tanks at Watermans Bay, WA.

“We are looking at how can we improve bromoform concentration in seaweed that are growing and then once the seaweed is harvested we are determining how post-harvest processing can ensure concentrations stay high.

“Altering growing conditions can influence the bromoform concentration and we are learning how best to manage this onshore and how this may translate to offshore growing conditions. Post-harvest processing is also where you could alter bromoform concentration, and if its not treated appropriately you could impact the quality of the feed supplement. Obviously it’s a very valuable product so as long as the concentrations remain at or above the minimum industry standard, which is achievable, the better,” explained Dr Statton.

Dr Statton says the benefits of feeding ruminant livestock Asparagopsis go beyond helping reduce methane emissions.

“Livestock producers would like to be greener but their operations still need to be profitable. Research by CSIRO and international collaborators has shown that Asparagopsis provides a productivity bump of 20, and up to 50 per cent in cattle because the energy that was going into methane production now goes into growth or milk production. So the productivity is better and so is the conversion.

“10 per cent of our emissions come from livestock production so if we are looking at lowering our carbon footprint, the wider availability of Asparagopsis becomes a low hanging fruit.”

With his background in marine restoration ecology and aquaculture, and a PhD in aquaculture of seagrass for the purpose of restoration, Dr Statton says he has been fascinated with the cultivation process.

“Seeing how the spores of seaweed germinate and grow is intriguing. There are a range of techniques that can be employed. Some procedures we have adapted from other existing seaweed cultivation techniques, while other procedures we have had to innovate for this novel species. Getting the process right and seeing it under the microscope and watching the spores being released in real time then grow has been a highlight.”

It’s also the commercial outcomes of the project which excites Dr Statton and his research partners including University of Western Australia, Abrolhos Aquaculture Australia, Latitude Fisheries, Pilbara Blue Carbon Co, Karratha Earthmoving and Sand Supplies and Future Green Solutions.

“It’s not enough that we can produce the spores and get the seaweed to grow in a lab and then in the ocean. It needs to be at a commercial scale and our research has some promising results which will have positive implications to the wider industry.”

The research team has received $257,000 from the University of Western Australia and the Australian Government to build the Seaweed Aquaculture Research and Hatchery (SARaH) facility within the Watermans Bay marine research facility. SARaH will be the first commercial seaweed hatchery in Western Australia with Asparagopsis being one of the first commercially available seaweed species by 2023.

The research project will wrap-up in March next year with a final research paper to be published on the AgriFutures Australia website.

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