B.C. researchers pile on global efforts to find seaweed solution to cow flatulence

Cattle researchers at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., are looking to seaweed from the West Coast for help in the fight against climate change.

That's because studies from Australia and California have found a specific strain of tropical seaweed can reduce methane output in cattle up to 60 to 80 per cent.

John Church, an associate professor and expert in cattle industry sustainability, is picking up where that research left off.

Church says there are 1.5 billion head of cattle on the planet and their burps and flatulence add methane  — a gas that's more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide — to the atmosphere. According the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, about 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock. 

That's led Church to look for ways to reduce methane production in individual cows rather than reducing the number of cattle altogether. 

"It would ... be very difficult for us to give up meat and dairy," Church said. "Cattle ... also utilize a lot of land and pasture land that we otherwise couldn't produce food from."

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The specific type of seaweed that causes the reduction contains a chemical compound called bromoform. Luckily, a local species also has the compound, Church says.

The local seaweed, an invasive brown seaweed species that has taken over the west coast of Vancouver Island, has another major advantage.

"It seems that cows really like to eat it," he said. "I've actually literally fed the seaweed out of my hand and the cows eat it. No problem."

In the Australian and Californian studies, Church says, the cows didn't find seaweed palatable although ranchers in Japan and Scotland have historically fed it to their livestock.

"The cows don't like to eat it so they have to powder it, try to mix it into their feed, and use molasses."

The next step in the research is figuring out how much bromoform is in the seaweed and further study on the digestibility of the compound for the cattle.

Putting seaweed into cattle feed won't be a big stretch, Church says. It's already approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as a food ingredient.

Jenifer Norwell/CBC

Listen to the segment on Daybreak Kamloops here: