Fonterra’s seaweed trial to lower emissions – what’s the latest?

02-06 | |
Sea Forest is dramatically increasing its production of the seaweed supplement. Photo: Fonterra
Sea Forest is dramatically increasing its production of the seaweed supplement. Photo: Fonterra

Dairy giant, Fonterra, will expand its trial with the seaweed Asparagopsis. In the first stage of the trial, 900 dairy cows have been fed small amounts of the seaweed and there haven’t been any red flags at any stage.

Fonterra entered a partnership with the Australian company, Sea Forest, in 2020 to see if using Asparagopsis seaweed as a supplement feed for dairy cows could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Research by Australian organisation, CSIRO, has shown that Asparagopsis seaweed has the potential to reduce emissions by over 80% in laboratory trials, and while Fonterra understands the reductions will vary out of the lab, it emphasises that all reductions count.

So far, the Asparagopsis seaweed trial has taken place on Richard Gardner’s Annandale farm in the Midlands of Tasmania. Based on the positive outcomes, Fonterra is now ready to take the trial to the next stage where it will expand the trials to include multiple farms.

Along with the new phase, an agreement with Sea Forest allows all Fonterra farmers globally to get first access to the Asparagopsis solution. This means that if the trial proves successful and the product is ready to go, Fonterra farmers will be at the front of the queue. The trial of feeding Asparagopsis to dairy herds is unique in the southern hemisphere.

Safe for cows and consumers

Fonterra’s sustainability manager, Jack Holden, says Fonterra’s grass-fed farming model makes Fonterra one of the most carbon-efficient producers of dairy in the world. “However, we have an aspiration to be net-zero by 2050 and are investing in research and development and partnerships to help find a solution to reducing methane emissions,” he points out.

“As with all methane solutions we’re trialling, what we need to find out is whether this is safe for cows and safe for consumers, and ensure that there is no impact on milk taste or quality.”

“Asparagopsis seaweed looks like it could be the first viable option we have had to achieve major emission reductions…”

Fonterra says that its access to leading dairy farmers also gives the company a good opportunity to test possible solutions and get them to scale much faster. Richard Gardner’s Annandale farm was chosen not only because Tasmania has a suitable climate, but also because Richard has a well-established flexible feeding and milking system.

Gardner has long been into sustainability on-farm, and when the opportunity came up to be involved in the trial, he jumped at the chance. “Asparagopsis seaweed looks like it could be the first viable option we have had to achieve major emission reductions,” he says. “And although it’s early days, it could potentially be part of the future sustainability of our industry.”

Fonterra has focussed heavily on animal health concerns. “What we see is promising at each stage,” the company says. Photo: Fonterra
Fonterra has focussed heavily on animal health concerns. “What we see is promising at each stage,” the company says. Photo: Fonterra

Promising at each stage

On Richard’s farm, 900 of his dairy cows have been fed small amounts of the seaweed supplement. During the trial, researchers extensively tested milk for seaweed residues, and there haven’t been any red flags at any stage.

The dairy giant has also focussed heavily on animal health concerns. “What we see is promising at each stage,” the company says. “We also compared milk production with cows who were not fed the seaweed supplement, and we found that production is unchanged.”

Another focus of the trial has been the practicality of using the seaweed supplement as part of normal operations. Holden says this is critical. “It needs to be easy to implement and beneficial for farmers if we want it to be widely adopted.”

Commercial partner, Sea Forest, is ready and set to increase production. Sea Forest is one of a few licenced producers of Asparagopsis for cattle feed. The licences are issued by Future Feed which is the commercial joint venture that owns the intellectual property.

Sea Forest founder and CEO, Sam Elsom, says last year the company bought an additional 30 hectare farm as it dramatically increases its production of the seaweed supplement. “Asparagopsis is a common seaweed native to the waters of Tasmania and New Zealand,” he explains, “And we’re the first in the world to cultivate it at a commercial scale through both marine and land-based aquaculture.”

Fonterra’s sustainability-manager Jack Holden: “What we need to find out is whether we can use this in a way that is safe for cows and safe for consumers, and ensure that there is no impact on milk taste or quality.” Photo: Fonterra
Fonterra’s sustainability-manager Jack Holden: “What we need to find out is whether we can use this in a way that is safe for cows and safe for consumers, and ensure that there is no impact on milk taste or quality.” Photo: Fonterra

A number of different options

Elsom says that Sea Forest needed a food industry partner to help it take production to a commercial scale. “We partnered with Fonterra because of its commitment to sustainability and innovation. And although we’re still in trial phases, we believe this has potential.”

Fonterra sees climate change as one of the most pressing challenges of our time. “Right through our supply chain, we’re continuously looking for more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to produce and distribute our dairy foods,” the company says. “We believe there will be no single solution to the methane challenge, so we are investigating a number of different options.”

The Asparagopsis seaweed trial in Australia is part of the cooperative’s wider efforts to tackle emissions and its aspiration to be net zero carbon by 2050. Fonterra is currently carrying out a number of other trials in this area.

Fonterra is also tapping into its large collection of dairy cultures to create new fermentations that could inhibit the methanogens that create methane in cows. It is working with Royal DSM to test whether DSM’s feed additive product, Bovaer, which reduces methane emissions from cows by over 30% in non-pasture-based farming systems, can do the same in New Zealand’s pasture-based farming systems.

And with MPI and DairyNZ, Fonterra is expanding a promising trial with Nestlé to include plantain in a cow’s diet to reduce the amount of nitrogen produced, reducing carbon emissions and improving freshwater quality.

Groeneveld
René Groeneveld Australia correspondent

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