Published: 14:33, 09 November 2021
| Updated: 15:08, 09 November 2021
Could giving cows seaweed lead to more climate-friendly cattle herds?
Morrisons is taking part in a three-year trial to see if changing the diet of livestock, and using a seaweed-based animal feed, can have a major impact on the amount of harmful methane cows produce in burps and flatulence.
The animals produce the greenhouse gas as they digest fibrous food in a process similar to fermentation. And while it does not last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere it is more than 30 times as effective in trapping heat, with UK agriculture currently accounting for around 10 per cent of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.
And within this, says Morrisons, beef farming is the most carbon intensive - generating 45 per cent of carbon emissions for only five per cent of products sold with nearly half of this solely down to the methane produced by the cows themselves.
Joining forces with the Queen's University Belfast, researchers are evaluating the nutritional value of seaweed while assessing its potential to reduce methane emissions, improve animal health as well as also enhancing meat and milk quality.
No research has yet been published, but those involved with the innovative trial say early signs are promising.
And what's more, results indicate that it is seaweed from the North and Irish Seas that is not only effective at reducing methane but also potentially preferable to imported red seaweed, previously tested in other studies, which does contain the ozone-destructive compound bromoform.
Scientific research earlier this year, says Morrisons, found that cows belched out 82% less methane after putting a small amount of red seaweeed into their feed.
Working with its beef farmers, Morrisons says it plans to take everything it is learning in the lab and put it into practice in the fields.
It also intends to work with UK fishermen, who already supply stock to its stores, to source the seaweed for cows which would then be converted into supplements they can eat.
Professor Sharon Huws, Professor of Animal Science and Microbiology at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS), and who is leading the research programme at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “We are excited to publish our lab research in due course. This is showing that, of several UK seaweeds tested in the lab, at least one is indicating a reduction in methane production.
"The next step will be to trial the effective seaweeds as nutritional supplements for cows and this will be managed by a Morrisons-funded PhD student. This is a truly innovative partnership between a retailer and researchers. The involvement of Morrisons means that effective methane reduction can be rolled out to Morrisons farmers’ herds of beef cows, and the seaweed needed can be sourced through its relationships with fisheries."
Morrisons, which has almost 500 stores, has already embarked on a programme to be supplied solely by net zero carbon British farms by 2030.
Over the next nine years the retailer says it will work with 3,000 farmers and growers which supply its shelves to produce 'affordable' net zero carbon meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables.
Sophie Throup, Head of Agriculture at Morrisons, said: “As British farming's biggest customer, we’re very mindful of our role in supporting and inspiring the farmers we work with to help them achieve goals in sustainable farming. With our own livestock experts and direct relationships with farmers we’re able to make changes quickly.
"By supporting this PhD studentship and wider research we are trialling this natural approach to reducing the environmental emissions caused by burps and flatulence from cows - as well as improving the quality of beef products.”