David O’Halloran, who runs the seaweed company Blath na Mara with his wife Jenny O’Halloran, harvests Sea Spaghetti seaweed (himonthalia elongata) on a rocky shore on Inis Mór of the Aran Islands, Ireland, April 28, 2021. Source: (REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Large-scale methane emission from cows has been a big problem for Ireland. The country has the highest per capita output of methane gas in Europe. It is an even bigger problem for the world and environment. But, seaweed might just be a solution for methane emission from farm animals.

As an example of the many negative effects, unburnt methane in the atmosphere is harmful to the environment as it is traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

In addition to climate change, it also negatively affects human health. For instance, high levels of methane can reduce the amount of oxygen breathed from the air. This can result in issues like mood swings, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, headache, etc. Severe effects may include changed breathing and heart rate, balance problems, numbness, and even unconsciousness.

Methane can pose a big threat to humans, as evident from these few examples. Not just Ireland, but also the whole world needs to worry about it.

What is the Irish development on Seaweed?
Sheep are herded at the Teagasc Agriculture and Food Development Authority in it’s Mellows Campus in Athenry, Ireland, August 31, 2021. Source: (REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Scientists in Ireland are collecting native seaweed to feed to cows and sheep, so that it reduces the methane gas that the farm animals release.

Also, different research projects suggest that feeding seaweed to animals can reduce the amount of the climate-warming gas they produce. Thus, scientists have decided to try this out on farm animals in Ireland.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference, 2021, in Scotland, Ireland took an initiative that aligns their efforts with a global dimension. They joined a worldwide goal to cut the net output of methane gas by 30% by 2030.

Irish officials say such reductions will mostly be reached through a 50% cut in non-agriculture methane. The country expects to reduce farm-related methane by 10% by 2030.

How will Seaweed fit into the Program?
A Seasolutions trial where sheep are fed seaweed extract to reduce their methane emissions. Source: (REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

The program aims to use seaweed additives in food to reduce methane emissions from animals. In this way, farmers can reach the goals related to efforts against climate change without having to reduce the number of farm animals.

Researchers have tested about 20 different kinds of seaweed, mostly from Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Additionally, the project’s partners have collected many other kinds of seaweed in Norway, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Britain.

American and Australian scientists have demonstrated the methane-reducing qualities of the Asparagopsis genus of seaweed. They added small amounts of this to animal feed in tests. However, this kind of seaweed is not easy to grow in Northwestern Europe.

The Irish project aims to find native seaweeds within the country instead. But some researchers concede that the local versions are nowhere close to the methane reducing levels of Asparagopsis. This seaweed reduces methane levels by over 80%.

Adapting to the Changes

Maria Hayes is a project leader for the SeaSolutions project. She said, “We have identified some brown seaweeds that are very positive and they’re producing results”. Their project team has reported methane reductions of about 11-20% in early tests.

Irish researchers are also working on ways to bring the seaweed additives into the nation’s farming system for cattle. This is because most cattle in Ireland have grass as their primary diet.

Dairy cattle that are participating in a trial of being fed seaweed to offset methane emissions gather around the solar-powered methane measuring machine at the AFBI research farm in Hillsborough. Source: (REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

On a farm southwest of Belfast, the farmers are using treats to persuade cows to put their heads into a solar-powered machine that measures the level of methane in their breath. This same method will test the animals that have been fed with seaweed additives.

Dutch chemical company Royal DSM produces a food additive that, it says, can cut methane release by about 30%. The company said it had received government approval in Brazil and Chile and is currently seeking approval in the European Union.

Future of Ireland’s Agriculture

There are mixed reactions to all of these developments. Because, not everyone is sure that such additives can help meet the latest climate change targets.

Sadhbh O’Neill is a climate policy and environmental politics expert at Dublin City University. She has been critical of industry attempts to depend on technology rather than seek workable long-term goals for Ireland’s agriculture industry.

“Scaling up these solutions takes time. We don’t have time,” O’Neill said.

Jenny O’Halloran harvests seaweed by hand on Inis Mór island, off Ireland’s west coast. According to her, this interest in the industry will keep growing. She said, “Maybe the future is actually farming seaweed, which I think has to be part of the conversation when it comes to the future of seaweed in Ireland”.

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