“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein
At Symbrosia, we are learning from the natural world in order to save it from the threat of climate change. We’re rapidly scaling up growth of a very special seaweed that, when sprinkled in livestock feed, reduces the methane emissions caused by their digestion by over 90%. These livestock methane emissions account for an alarming 6% of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any nation besides the US and China.
If enough cows, sheep, and goats start snacking on this methane-vanquishing seaweed, it will prevent gigatons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere and will bring the entire animal agriculture industry one big step closer to being carbon neutral. This will make a huge difference in the fight against climate change.
In this article, we’d like to introduce you to the red seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis, the all-natural ingredient at the core of our sustainable feed solution for the world’s millions of farmers and billions of farm animals. Read on to learn how we make our seaweed feed supplement, how it reduces livestock methane emissions, and how we plan to distribute it to livestock around the world ASAP. By the end, we hope you’ll be as excited about this mighty macroalgae and its emissions reduction potential as we are.
What’s the story of this seaweed?
Asparagopsis taxiformis (A. taxiformis from here on out) is a species of red seaweed that grows in warm and tropical ocean waters. In Hawai’i, where Symbrosia is based, this seaweed is called limu kohu which means “supreme seaweed.” It is used as a condiment, often added to poke and other dishes. If you’ve ever had traditional Hawaiian poke, you’ve probably eaten A. taxiformis without even knowing it. Under Hawaiian stewardship, coastal limu beds were tended to like land gardens and monitored carefully for seasonal blooms in accordance with microseasons dictated by lunar cycles (Poepoe et al.). Hawaiian limu stewards and gatherers were typically women, who became experts in gathering nutrition and flavorful ingredients from the ocean as they were barred from eating some of the islandʻs tastiest foods like coconut, pork, and bananas before the 1819 overthrow of the kapu system by Queen Kaʻahumanu.
Receiving a ball of limu kohu was, and is, considered a great gift. We hope to honor the legacy of limu kohu in Hawaiʻi by training the next generation of ocean stewards, through our NOAA-supported Macroalgae Mariculture Apprenticeship program for high school students in West Hawaiʻi. Have ideas for ways we can support Hawaiian coastal stewards, or limu conservation efforts? Please reach out to us at email@example.com, weʻd love to work with you.
Why is this seaweed so special?
Besides being tasty, A. taxiformis does something that no other plant or food that we know of does: When added to livestock feed, it reduces their methane emissions by over 90%. Normally, through a process called enteric fermentation, the hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the animal’s stomach combine during digestion to form methane (CH4), which is then released every time the animal burps. However, A. taxiformis has glands which contain the compound bromoform (CHBr3). Within the animal’s gut, the bromoform in the seaweed blocks the H2 and CO2 from combining, dramatically reducing the amount of methane produced during digestion.
Sounds pretty cool. What scientific research has been done on the seaweed?
In 2016, researchers at James Cook University and The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia first demonstrated that A. taxiformis leads to over 90% methane emissions reduction when incorporated into cow diets. Since then, the scientific consensus on the antimethanogenic effects of A. taxiformis on livestock has been steadily building. Subsequent research at Penn State and UC Davis confirmed the initial findings. CSIRO’s latest research, published in March of 2020, showed that A. taxiformis maintains 90% methane reduction down to only 0.4% inclusion in cattle feed. We are encouraged by the research consensus, and particularly excited by the recent discovery that even small quantities of this seaweed cause a big reduction to livestock methane emissions. Read our research review if you want to do a deeper dive into the literature.
How does Symbrosia produce A. taxiformis?
There are 1.5 billion cows worldwide who could all get a sprinkle of this seaweed in their feed, and only a limited amount growing in the wild. Removing significant amounts of wild A. taxiformis could also damage ocean ecosystems, since the seaweed breaks down pollutants and provides a habitat for marine life. To avoid damaging ecosystems and maximize emissions reduction, we need to figure out how to cultivate A. taxiformis at scale via a custom aquaculture system.
At our production facility within the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) on the island of Hawai’i, our team of seaweed and aquaculture experts is developing the first on-land system capable of growing A. taxiformis at scale. A. taxiformis has a complex lifestyle and is very sensitive to growth parameters. We are doing the novel research required to figure out how to accelerate A. taxiformis growth in controlled land-based systems, while minimizing resource use and maximizing production per land area. We are zeroing in on ideal growing conditions, identifying strains with target metabolites and high growth rates, and learning as much as we can about this incredible seaweed so we can grow it efficiently and sustainably.
How does Symbrosia get cows to eat the seaweed?
Fortunately, cows, sheep, and goats aren’t picky eaters when it comes to a sprinkle of seaweed 🐮. After growing the A. taxiformis, we dry it to naturally preserve it, and make it into our product, which we call SVD. SVD is dried, powderized A. taxiformis. After quality assurance, we deliver the SVD to farmers, who add just a sprinkle to their existing livestock feed blends. The cows, sheep, and goats don’t even notice that they’re helping to save the planet.
Does Symbrosia’s SVD affect the milk or meat from livestock?
In all research on livestock consumption of A. taxiformis, no changes in milk or meat quality have been detected. No significant concentrations of bromoform were found in the milk or meat from cows who consumed A. taxiformis. Research from UC Davis in 2019 showed that the levels of bromoform that are present are approximately 1/500th of the concentration of bromoform that is commonly found in drinking water.
Do livestock farmers benefit from this new feed additive?
Yes. Farmers will benefit by avoiding futures taxes. For the first time ever, governments are legislating to reduce the massive environmental footprint of the livestock industry. The European Union, multiple states (California, Oregon, Vermont), and New Zealand are actively implementing or exploring taxes on agricultural methane emissions. However, livestock farmers, who are already facing price drops and seeing demand crippled by the COVID-19 crisis, have no way to significantly lower livestock methane emissions. With Symbrosia’s SVD, beef and dairy farmers will be empowered to avoid agricultural emissions taxes. They’ll also be able to market their products to environmentally conscious consumers willing to pay a bit extra for methane-neutral milk and meat.
How are the communities where Symbrosia works affected?
At Symbrosia, it is extremely important to us to accept guidance from and offer support to the communities where we live and work. One major way that we are already doing this is through vocational training and job creation. In October 2020, with the support of NOAA, we will be launching a Macroalgae Mariculture Apprenticeship program for high school students in West Hawai’i. The program will offer STEM internships to students from the West Hawaii Explorations Academy (WHEA), equipping them with the skills and experience needed to work in or study aquaculture. As Hawai’i adapts to the decline in tourism caused by COVID-19, we hope Symbrosia will become a part of the state’s new, sustainable ocean economy.
When will the SVD product be ready and available?
Our first product deployment began in June 2020 at Z Farms, a certified organic farm in Dover Plains, New York. Z Farms’ owner, Dr. Diane Zlotnikov, and the rest of the team are truly “first-moovers,” and we are so excited about the partnership!
In the meantime, we’re scaling up our production system as fast as we possibly can to generate enough A. taxiformis biomass to fuel more farm partnerships. We’ll be sure to announce future partnerships on our blog and social media accounts.
At Symbrosia, we are committed to addressing climate change through the natural power of seaweed. As Einstein suggested, we looked deep into nature, encountered A. taxiformis, and never looked back. This seaweed is our hero.
One common side effect of reading this article is Asparagopsis taxiformis obsession, so don’t be alarmed if you’re feeling an urgent desire to learn even more. To get more info about this wonderful seaweed, livestock methane emissions, or Symbrosia, you can email us directly. Whether you’re an aquaculture expert, a forward-thinking farmer, or just starting your seaweed journey, we’d love to hear your thoughts and answer your questions.
Eli Etzioni writes for Symbrosia, a CleanTech startup reducing livestock methane emissions with seaweed.