Startup looks to seaweed to cut cows’ impact on climate
Company wants to expand limu-based feed trials to Maui, other islands
A Hawaii-based startup company is working to tackle climate change with tiny but mighty seaweed.
By feeding cows, sheep and other farm animals a natural seaweed-based supplement grown sustainably in state, Symbrosia in Kailua-Kona hopes to improve digestion and reduce livestock methane emissions, which are responsible for 10 percent of total greenhouse gases. It’s now eyeing trials at ranches across the state this summer, including on Maui.
“We’ve gotten some pretty positive reactions from the farmers and ranchers we’ve spoken to in Hawaii and on the Mainland,” said Kylie Tuitavuki, member of the Business Development team. “A lot of people recognize that methane from livestock is a huge problem with climate change, and so they want to make sure that they are running in a sustainable way — trying to produce livestock while also being environmentally friendly.”
Researchers and climate change advocates have long mulled how to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, with some turning their attention to cattle diets. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, recently found that using seaweed in beef cattle’s diets could reduce their methane emissions as much as 82 percent. The drawback, the researchers said, was that there isn’t enough in the wild for broad application.
That’s what makes Symbrosia’s approach unique — it doesn’t require large-scale harvesting, only a few cells that they can grow via aquaculture at a facility. While in its early stages, the trials are promising.
When the limu kohu supplement, called SeaGraze, is sprinkled into animal feed, it increases growth rates of the livestock and reduces the methane emissions from cows by over 90 percent, Tuitavuki said.
Made from the red seaweed (Asparagopsis taxiformis, the same type used in the UC Davis study), SeaGraze is packed with natural vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for safe animal consumption.
Limu also plays a “vital role,” traditionally and culturally, in the marine ecosystem, Tuitavuki said, which means this can be a sustainable and energy-efficient food additive source for farmers and ranchers to feed their livestock.
“In an industrial and rapidly changing world, it’s necessary for us to maintain a balance between social development and sustainable life practices,” said Tuitavuiki, a University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate student studying the sustainability of indigenous cropping systems and their potential for revitalizing local food production.
Symbrosia is currently the only company doing this type of work in the U.S. and more information about their operations was shared during a Maui Nui Marine Resource Council presentation on Wednesday via Zoom.
Methane from livestock is the main focus and inspiration behind the product because digestion and burps from cows, sheep, goats and others cause roughly 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions and with the demand for animal products rising, the problem “is very pressing,” Daisy Stock, who is the research and development manager at Symbrosia.
Methane stays in the atmosphere for only a dozen years, as opposed to carbon dioxide’s lifespan of a thousand years, but methane heats the planet “much more intensely.”
“If cows alone were a country, they would produce just about as much greenhouse gases as the entire European Union,” she said.
Along with changes in weather patterns due to the climate crisis, sea surface temperatures are expected to rise by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius and sea levels up to 2.6 feet in the coming decade. This in turn will impact coral reefs and shellfish, and disrupt natural habitats and food supply.
There is also expected to be a “significant decrease” in the number of marine plants in warmer waters, reducing the amount of nutrients available along the food chain, Stock said.
“Methane emitted today will have about 80 times the global warming effect of CO2 over the next 20 years,” said Stock, who used to work in a NASA laboratory studying meteoric materials. “In the short term, reducing methane emissions will have a much larger cooling effect than reducing carbon dioxide by the same amount. This is why we’re so motivated to achieve a drastic reduction in methane emissions this decade.”
Stock said that Asparagopsis taxiformis outperformed the other limu tested in a previous 2014 study at James Cook University and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia for reducing the naturally occurring methane in livestock without impacting the fatty acids needed to produce milk, wool and meat.
Additionally, Symbrosia conducted the world’s first commercial asparagopsis trial in 2020 and saw over 75 percent reduction in enteric (intestinal) methane, according to its website.
The main acting ingredient in Symbrosia’s supplement SeaGraze involves the natural compound found in the seaweed, called bromoform, which blocks the hydrogen from the carbon, reducing methanogens naturally through improved digestion.
“Continued research and feed trials have shown that the methane reductions hold up and using the supplement does not have any adverse effects on animal health or the products expected from these animals,” Stock said.
To date, the “miracle seaweed” supplement has reduced over four tons of CO2-equivalent during trials on the Mainland.
Focusing on land-based, zero-waste cultivation using sun and seawater, the Symbrosia team is currently expanding sustainable production at its facility in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii island and plans to have upcoming feed trials this summer at ranches statewide.
Sampling does not require plant removal. To start seed stocks on a larger scale, the team only needs a few cells of seaweed, she said.
“We are collecting, cultivating and partnering with ranchers and farmers throughout the Hawaiian Islands, to support local food systems and the local economy while also fighting against climate change,” she said.
Seeing that local food systems stepped up and thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuitavuki said they hope to support Hawaii-owned-and-operated businesses and producers by partnering with them, such as Hana Ranch, Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, Maui Cattle Company and Panewa Feed Mill, as well as organizations and institutions like the Hawaii Food Alliance and UH-Hilo.
“As we continue to upscale, we want to make sure that we’re creating a market that values climate smart commodities in a way that promotes environmental justice and uplifts minority-serving institutions and other marginalized groups,” Tuitavuki said. “We’re doing this by partnering with small farmers, ranchers and producers throughout the Hawaiian Islands and throughout the United States.”
Though no market prices were provided for the feed additive yet, Stock said that it would be comparable to what farmers and ranchers are already paying for expensive vitamins to support livestock, except the seaweed-based supplement has the additional benefits for the animals’ health as well as for nutrient-rich manure.
They are also looking into how they could make participating farmers or ranchers eligible for carbon credits in the future.
Currently, though, the feed trials involving the supplements are cost-free to the ranchers.
“It’s really important to us through all these processes that our research goals are aligned to scale the solution in a way that paves the way for sustainable aquaculture, thriving marine ecosystems and community-oriented growth,” Stock said.
For more information or for those interested in testing out the seaweed feed additive, visit symbrosia.co/seagraze.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.