Could cows be the solution to Florida’s impending seaweed crisis?

Study shows feeding cows seaweed curbs methane emissions

Posted 3/28/23

Witnessing our climate drastically change right before our eyes has, at the very least, opened the door to conversation with a broader audience ...

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Could cows be the solution to Florida’s impending seaweed crisis?

Study shows feeding cows seaweed curbs methane emissions


Witnessing our climate drastically change right before our eyes has, at the very least, opened the door to conversation with a broader audience. It’s a scary discussion that gives most of us a visceral feeling of heaviness in our chests. Thinking about the volatility of the human species is quite unsettling for pretty much everyone.

As the media furthers their interest on this trending topic, it’s not uncommon to see the eye-catching, slightly funny headline about the contribution cattle have to the demise of the world, one fart and burp at a time.

In reality though, aside from third-party funded projects with graphs and numbers that have been extrapolated to fit a thesis, U.S. cattle contribute a rather small portion – a mere 3% or 4% to the overall total methane emission. This numerical percentage is echoed by Forbes writer, Chloe Sorvino, in her bookRAW DEAL, where she goes into much more detail about emissions and percentages. Alternately, the EPA’s website displays a 4% contribution statistic from cattle as well.

Statistics aside,  the main idea put simply, is that the cattle aren’t to blame -- we are.  Let’s be honest with ourselves: The culprits are humans-via-automobiles, and humans-via-corporate-industrial-factories who  grapple and compete for a cheaply made, mass-produced product. These are the most egregious contributors to climate change.

However, after reading so much about cattle and the climate, it is time to examine the 4% that cattle are contributing to methane release in our ecosystem. Once examined it is possible to ponder and hypothesize a solution.

There is no time like the present, especially with regard to the state of Florida, which is about to be smothered by a 5,000-mile wide floating blob of sargassum seaweed. Many marine scientists are predicting the seaweed invasion to be the worst yet. So is there anything we can do? Yes is the short answer.

Associate Professor Andre Brito, from the University of New Hampshire,  conducted a study wherein his researchers mixed seaweed into cattle feed over a period of time. The results of this study showed that methane emissions from dairy cattle in the control study were reduced by 20%.

More recently, Cargill, one of the big four meat packers who largely ‘factory farms’, have invested $355,000 in research money to partner with Cornell University. The specific interest lies with Joseph McFadden, an associate professor of dairy cattle biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who has created a ‘Respiration Chamber’ where gas emissions from dairy cattle can be studied.

When interviewed by The Hill publication, McFadden said that “the dairy industry is not one of the main contributors to climate change; the big contributors are fossil fuel use: electricity generation, transportation and industry. Although dairy is a small contributor, like 1%, we need solutions that reduce greenhouse gas production in all sectors while ensuring the availability of nutritious animal-sourced foods for the consumer and the protection of healthy ecosystems.”

There have been a few other university studies conducted on this topic, too. However none have been specific to sargassum seaweed on the coast of Florida, and all have been conducted specifically with dairy cattle. Within this population, research has concluded that certain seaweed strains have been proven to cut more methane emission than others, but also, that it causes less milk production.

In this case, what’s not optimum for dairy cattle may be good for beef cattle. Beef cows go through a yearly weaning process with calves, and having an organic option that can help to reduce lactation, especially during this weaning process, could negate issues like mastitis, which is a contributing cause of death.

By mid-July it is predicted that Florida is going to have tons of ample seaweed product. So this hypothesis could offer a two-part solution: reduction in methane emissions from cattle while simultaneously reducing sargassum seaweed on Florida’s beaches.

Right now there are a few other seaweed solution-oriented ideas floating around, but nothing seems to be as poignant as combating climate change by utilizing Florida beef cattle.

Maybe because residents and visitors alike do not know that besides its beaches and theme parks, Florida is ranked 10th in the nation for beef cattle production, and home to five out of the top-ten cow-calf operations. These cattle operations are located in the counties of: Okeechobee, Highlands and Osceola.

The current disposal strategy in place seems to be with waste management companies across the state.

The News Journal in Escambia County interviewed Robert Turpin, a marine resource manager for the Escambia Department of Natural Resources, and here’s what he said, “ if excess levels of sargassum wash ashore Pensacola Beach our department will bury the algae under sand dunes to spur the beach’s ecosystem.”

Another recent article reported that seaweed has historically been disposed of at a landfill, or more recently, a certain private company will contract with a city to remove the sargassum and repurpose it as compostable yard soil in urban areas. The drawback to using this in a lawn or as fertilizer is that sargassum emits hydrogen sulfide as it decomposes.

The Florida Department of Health released this statement: “hydrogen sulfide can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. If you have asthma or other breathing illnesses, you will be more sensitive to hydrogen sulfide. You may have trouble breathing after you inhale it.”

Being that Florida has the highest percent of senior citizens in the country, embedding and repurposing this on a lawn may present risk.

The department further states that Sargassum should not be used in cooking because it may contain large amounts of heavy metals.

This aspect of utilizing seaweed as food is a bit worrisome because when we eat an animal, we essentially eat what that animal has eaten. So beyond the concern of cattle seaweed consumption creating meat with an odd smell or taste, is the concern for toxicity.

Digestive enzymes in the stomach do change chemical components, and sargassum eaten by a cow would certainly go through an organic compound change while being processed through four different bariatric chambers. However, research is needed to find a conclusion.

UC Davis has conducted research on the trace heavy metal topic, and it has shown that feeding cows red seaweed doesn’t impact the content of their meat. It also states that scientific research on the matter is very limited but essential because chemical components are highly variable across different species of seaweed.

Right now Florida is in a unique position to utilize its natural resources. But, if nothing is done will this seaweed blob be a detriment to society? Not really, it may hurt tourism and the beaches will stink for a while.

Will the 4% of methane emitted from bovine cause the world to collapse? This is highly unlikely. It might be a tiny contributor to changes within the climate, but the largest with real concern is carbon dioxide. It is far more likely to be the main culprit of a climate crisis.

We can all agree, however, that gasses emitted from cattle make for a great headline. Last week Reuters  reported there is a “necessary war on cow farts.”

Seriously, a war? Cow farts are more silly than they are harmful. Although, Bill Gates did just give $4 million to an Australian company for a research project to create gas masks for cattle. Just imagine what could be done with a $4 million  investment toward research on seaweed cleanup and cattle feed conversion.