By John Christy Johnson, Peter Anto Johnson and Austin A. Mardon on July 17, 2021.
Methane production has consistently been under fire as one of the principal contributors for climate change. Taking into consideration the steps and strategies employed by local communities to not only mitigate, but also adapt as outlined by NASA and other climate authorities, there is a growing emphasis on agriculture-based and grassroots solutions (https://www.reddeeradvocate.com/opinion/disasters-and-duck-domestication-adapting-to-climate-change/).
Methane is concerning despite having a shorter half life than carbon dioxide, because it can be up to 28 times more potent in raising the temperature of the atmosphere (https://clear.ucdavis.edu/explainers/why-methane-cattle-warms-climate-differently-co2-fossil-fuels). Cattle like cows are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions globally with a single cow producing 220 pounds of methane per year. (https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/making-cattle-more-sustainable)
Many have suggested that people switch plates to a plant-based diet and/or eat less meat as a way to adapt and slow the progression of climate change at least to some extent. However, the multi-billion dollar meat industry and the complex dietary demands of consumers have made the adoption of non-meat based dining and eating much more challenging and costly – both in an economic and social sense. When we consider the bigger picture of horticulture with a bird’s eye view, there are other drawbacks that can come from switching to a purely crop-based cultivation strategy.
These drawbacks gain even more ground when we consider the geography of the Earth, where only a relatively small portion of land is suitable for producing crops and cultivation.
Regions of land are much more optimal for grazing and as a result, livestock plays a rather crucial role in feeding an eight billion person and exponentially growing global population. (https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/can-seaweed-cut-methane-emissions-dairy-farms) In light of this, focusing on the nutrition we provide cattle instead of completely eliminating meat from our diets is a much more feasible alternative option.
According to the latest findings from researchers at the University of California, perhaps adding some seaweed to the stock for cattle can reduce methane emissions up to 82 per cent (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0247820). As such, farmers who decide to turn over a new leaf with a seaweed-supplemented diet for cows can radically reduce the ecological footprint left by our traditional farming practices. In doing so, we can support the sustainability of farmers in the cultivation of beef and dairy products for the everyday consumer.
The seaweed works by inhibiting an enzyme in the four-compartment stomachs of the cow’s digestive system that is responsible for methane production. A newer study conducted by the same group at the University of California also examined and demonstrated that methane production in the breath of the cows that were fed the seaweed-diet from an early age emitted much less methane than those that were fed the standard cattle feed. (https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/feeding-cattle-seaweed-reduces-their-greenhouse-gas-emissions-82-percent) This further supports the idea that continuing this diet can keep these enzymes of the cow’s gut engaged and lead to less methane production overall.
While this is a promising idea and digestible in theory, there remain questions about large-scale implementation of the seaweed-diet and logistical issues that farmers and horticulturalists will have to face.
Though climate change is a multifaceted issue and one that cannot be reduced by these independent initiatives alone; other sources of greenhouse gases and pollution such as the nitrous oxide in fertilizers also warrant attention when tackling climate change.
This places an intense pressure on farmers and can be a tough idea for them and the public who depend on produce and agriculture to chew.
John Christy Johnson is research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada (AIC) and an MD/MSc biomedical engineering candidate at the University of Alberta.
Peter Anto Johnson is a research program officer at the AIC and recipient of the University of Alberta Sustainability Council’s Sustainability Leaders Award.
Austin A. Mardon is an assistant adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, an Order of Canada member, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and director of the AIC.