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This pink seaweed could reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 10% — by stopping cows from burping methane

Sharon Masige
  • Researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast are looking at ways to mass-produce a type of seaweed that can stop cows from burping methane.
  • If enough of this seaweed is produced for every cow in Australia, it could reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, the researchers hope.
  • The scientists are also looking at ways to grow the seaweed more sustainably.

University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) researchers are looking at ways to mass-produce a pink seaweed that can stop cows from burping methane — and ultimately reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

The seaweed species, called Asparagopsis, was first discovered to have this anti-burping effect in 2014, after a study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Now scientists at USC are taking the findings one step further by looking at ways it can produce the seaweed on a major scale.

In a YouTube video uploaded by USC, Associate Professor Nick Paul, who leads the USC seaweed research group, described Asparagopsis as a "red, puffy, pink-ish seaweed". He added that Queensland's Sunshine Coast "is like the epicentre of biodiversity" for it.

"It's actually pretty common and you would actually see it if you go snorkelling or at the beach," he said.

Paul said that if enough of the seaweed is grown for every cow in Australia, the country could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10%.

“Seaweed is something that cows are known to eat," Paul said in a statement. "They will actually wander down to the beach and have a bit of a nibble.

“When added to cow feed at less than 2% of the dry matter, this particular seaweed completely knocks out methane production. It contains chemicals that reduce the microbes in the cows’ stomachs that cause them to burp when they eat grass.”

The USC team is working at the Bribie Island research centre in Moreton Bay, Queensland, to learn more about growing the seaweed. The group's main mission is to see large scale production of the seaweed that could supplement cow feed on a national or even global level.

USC project scientist Ana Wegner said the team’s challenge was to find the right growing conditions to move the seaweed crops from the lab to large outdoor aquaculture tanks.

She added that the team knows the chemical composition of Asparagopsis and wants to maximise the concentration of that chemical "so we can use less seaweed for the same effect”.

Paul said the seaweed has generated global interest but warned that it will need to be produced sustainably.

"The one missing step, the big thing that is going to make sure this works at a global scale, is to make sure we can produce the seaweed sustainably,” he said in a statement.

Paul added that agriculture is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, direct livestock emissions account for around 70% of greenhouse gases made by the agricultural sector in Australia. It also accounts for 11% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions.

Paul said methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, having 28 times the heating potential of carbon dioxide. He added that most of methane produced by livestock comes from ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats.

"If we're able to work out how to scale up the seaweed to become at a level that can feed all of the cows and the sheep and the goats around the world then it's going to have a huge impact on the climate," Paul said.

"It's going to address a whole lot of carbon-neutral agendas that different countries have and it's ultimately going to save use all billions of dollars."