Does eating seaweed actually help reduce methane emissions in cows?
Symbrosia's data says yes!

Cows get a bad rap

The FAO reports that 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from raising livestock, and cows get the brunt of the blame for this (over 65%). The World Resources Institute states, "if cattle were a country, they would be the third-largest emitter, behind only China and the United States."
Researchers have been looking for ways to curb cow-based methane emissions for years using interesting techniques like adding curry to their diets (they weren't into it), potty-training them, selective breeding, and even vaccines that help minimize the microbes that cause cows to belch and fart. There's even a new USDA certification for "low carbon beef" that incentivizes producers who can reduce their cows' greenhouse gas emissions by 10% below the industry's standards. But the latest and greatest trend in reducing methane emissions for livestock is feeding them seaweed. Whereas this idea has been extensively discussed in the past, we're now seeing the results of several years of trials and research.

Venture capitalists are funding companies working in this space, such as Symbrosia ($7M) and Blue Ocean Barns ($20 M). In Sweden, a partnership between a biotech company, Volta Greentech, a food company, Protos, and a grocery store has resulted in the world's first "methane-reduced beef." They achieved this by supplementing the cow's diet with Asparagopsis taxiformis seaweed. As great as these new products sound, some food industry and climate gurus warn that this is 'greenwashing'. So let's dig into the data.

Are cows the new climate superheroes?
Photo by Michael Oeser on Unsplash.

I recently spoke with the founder and CEO of Symbrosia, Alexia Akbay, to discover whether this is all just hype or if cows dining on seaweed could become our next climate change heroes.

Symbrosia is a commercial operation that grows red seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, right next to the sea in Kona, Hawaii. The algae are turned into a "crumble" and added to cows' dietary supplements. Cows start eating seaweed early in life--as soon as they begin the transition from drinking mother's milk to eating solid foods. And they can continue to do so their entire lives. Symbrosia's research feeding cows seaweed found up to an 80% reduction in methane production with these supplements! In addition to better digestion, seaweed improves their coat and eye health. So overall, for the cows, it's a win-win.

From an environmental perspective, Alexia said that seaweed is an ideal additive because the plant is fast-growing, taking only three months to go from cell to full cages of materials. And they can use the entire biomass of the plant for the pellets, eliminating any agricultural byproducts.

Symbrosia has a unique value proposition because of their location too. They grow their seaweed on non-arable lands and lava fields instead of in the ocean.

Asparagopsis Taxiformis
Photo credit Jean-Pascal Quod, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.
While it would seem intuitive to grow the seaweed in the sea, she said there are limited permits available for commercially growing seaweed in the sea. And growing it on land allows for a more controlled environment. Similar to vertical farming, they can grow up to 80x per acre more seaweed on land than in the same amount of space in the ocean. There's less risk from weather or other environmental factors. To further be environmentally-friendly, their system bioremediates waste from local fish farms in their tanks. The manufacturing process for the pellets is done in-house, turning seaweed into a feed supplement called "SeaGraze" and using only renewable energy in their processing facility.

They plan to scale up seaweed production from a quarter acre to ten acres and eventually develop a seed bank. They hope to work with other resilient seaweeds in different temperatures and lighting conditions.

But with any new technology, there is always a set of challenges. Alexia noted that livestock research takes a long time to complete because you're working with the life cycles of animals. Accurately measuring methane emissions is hard work too. Symbrosia has partnered with a local university and ag extensions to trial different seaweed approaches. And from a regulatory perspective, the US doesn't have a carbon-neutral product certification yet, only a "low carbon beef" certification, so they need to be creative in their marketing to feed supplement distributors and farmers.

While Symbrosia is located next to a giant saltwater resource (the Pacific Ocean), other seaweed farming companies may not be so lucky. Unlike vertical farms that can build anywhere for hyper-local crops, seaweed farms will need to stay close to the coast to utilize saltwater in their farms.

Alexia notes that, on the bright side, Millennial and Gen Z consumers are much more interested in foods produced in climate-friendly ways. Hence Symbrosia believes this product has great potential (and not a lot of competition in the US).

Desolate, non-arable lava fields on the Big Island of Hawaii
Photo credit (edited) tinyfugu, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

Will cows become the next greenhouse gas saviors?

Not necessarily all on their own--but Symbrosia's pellets are an excellent first step. Their product is truly a disruptive technology for the agriculture industry that is only going to inspire more action and improve accountability surrounding methane emissions. It's not always easy to encourage people to eat less meat, but this is a step in the right direction for those who still love dairy and meat. It is also adds data to the wider discussion of methane emissions in agriculture by assigning real numbers to a solution.
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