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Interview: Can seaweed help reduce dairy emissions?

Jack Holden, general manager of sustainability for global markets at Fonterra, spoke to FoodBev's Phoebe Fraser about the dairy giant’s trials with Asparagopsis – a seaweed grown naturally in Australia and New Zealand – as a supplement feed for dairy cows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How can Asparagopsis prevent the formation of methane in livestock? As ruminant animals, dairy cows produce methane during digestion, emitted mainly through burping. Asparagopsis seaweed is a naturally occurring product that contains bromoform, which helps inhibits methane production in ruminants such as cattle and sheep. It is present in many seaweed species but is especially abundant in the Asparagopsis species. We also need to know if it is safe to use for consumers, cows and the environment so we are undertaking trials with leading farmers to complement the work being done by many other research organisations.

How is methane reduction measured? In New Zealand, our cows roam freely on outdoor pastures. This poses more of a challenge when it comes to measuring their menthane outputs. It is difficult to measure methane accurately on outdoor farms so we mainly rely on calibrated measures in controlled environments. A small number of research labs have rooms where airflow is controlled and the methane reductions can be tracked against the feeding rates for different supplements. We will need a robust methodology that ensures any lab results are adapted to suit the conditions on commercial grass-based farms. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) research has shown that Asparagopsis seaweed has the potential to reduce emissions by over 50% in laboratory trials, and while Fonterra understands the reductions will vary out of the lab, we need to look closely at all the possible methane reduction options to find safe and commercially viable solutions. Where and how is Asparagopsis red seaweed best cultivated? Asparagopsis is a common seaweed native to the waters of Australia and New Zealand. Fonterra’s focus is on Asparagopsis, which is cultivated using land-based and marine-based farming techniques. We don’t support any wild harvesting operations.

How can feeding livestock with Asparagopsis impact climate and cattle productivity? Results to date have been promising, in terms of animal health, food safety and operational viability for the farmer. As part of the Tasmanian trial, we have fed Asparagopsis to over 1,000 cows. We then compared milk production with cows who were not fed the seaweed supplement, and we found that production is unchanged. Animal wellbeing is front and centre of our focus and trials to date show no impact on the wellbeing of cows. What is bromoform bleed, how can it affect milk quality/safety, and how can it be overcome? We have been testing to ensure there are no unacceptable residues in the milk. Bromoform residue has not emerged as a significant problem in trials to date, however, we will keep monitoring this in the next stage. Some recent Australian research suggests the levels are well below the food safety thresholds. If the trials are successful, can Asparagopsis be produced at scale? That’s really a question for Sea Forest and the other licenced producers but we hope so. If there is a demand then we expect the investment will follow. It seems there has been a lot of progress in what is a very young production process and we are happy to see this continue. We hope our partnership can accelerate the testing and adoption of successful solutions. Fonterra is also trialling other potential solutions, however, the potentially large methane reductions from Asparagopsis make it a particularly interesting solution that we want to fully understand. Working out how practical it is to use this supplement as part of normal operations is another key focus of the trials. This is critical because if we want farmers to widely adopt it, it needs to be easy to implement and beneficial for farmers.

With an eye toward the future, how can we expect the dairy industry to enhance its sustainability credentials? There’s no doubt that globally we are witnessing a real sense of collective responsibility by our industry to solve environmental challenges. In New Zealand, we’re one of the most carbon-efficient producers of dairy in the world, but we need to do more. That’s why Fonterra has an aspiration to be net zero by 2050. Over the next decade, we will invest more than NZD 1 billion in reducing carbon emissions and improving water efficiency and treatment at our manufacturing sites. ​​Elsewhere, we are transitioning out of coal at nine out of 28 sites that continue to use coal by 2037.​​ We also acknowledge that we can’t do it alone. Making improvements in sustainability is a team effort that requires commitment across our supply chain. It starts on-farm but also involves our people and partners here in New Zealand and in our global markets – our partnership with Sea Forest is just one example. We’re leaving no stone unturned in solving the methane challenge, we believe there won’t be one silver bullet and there will be several solutions found through our investment in R&D and partnering with others.​​


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