Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Imagine a field full of cows. What are they eating? 

You’re probably thinking: grass, hay, or some sort of grain. What you’re probably not imagining, is seaweed. 

But some scientists say cows SHOULD be eating seaweed. And this small change to their diet could have a significant impact on the effects of climate change. What is this all about? We had Elise Ryan and Liyaan Maskati from our Possibly Team investigate. Welcome, Elise and Liyaan! 

Elise Ryan: Hi, Megan! 

Liyann Maskati: Hi! 

Megan Hall: So, what’s the deal with cows, seaweed, and climate change? 

Elise Ryan: Before we talk about seaweed, let’s take a step back and talk about cows and climate change.

Liyann Maskati: Cows contribute to climate change in a few ways. First- a lot of land and energy is used to grow crops to feed cows. And all that farming uses fossil fuels. 

Elise Ryan: But cows contribute to climate change in another major way: when cows burp, they create methane — which is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Megan Hall: Why do cow burps do this? 

Elise Ryan: Cows have an extra compartment in their stomachs called the “rumen.” When food particles are broken down in this compartment, the cow receives nutrients. BUT byproducts, like carbon dioxide and hydrogen, are also released. 

Liyann Maskati: Microbes in the rumen turn this carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methane. 

Megan Hall: And all of this is important because —? 

Breanna Roque: Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

Elise Ryan: That was Breanna Roque, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. She explained that methane traps more heat per molecule than other gases like carbon dioxide.  

Elise Ryan: To prevent cows from releasing methane, scientists needed to find a way to cut off the chemical process that happens when cows digest their food. That’s when they decided to try feeding them seaweed. 

Megan Hall: Why seaweed? 

Liyann Maskati: Breanna says seaweed contains a type of chemical called bromaform that interrupts the last stage of the process where a cow’s digested food creates methane.

Breanna Roque: There’s a specific enzyme that’s needed in the last step of methane formation. But it appears that this bromaform directly targets that enzyme and inactivates it.

Elise Ryan: Australian scientists were thinking about this process as well — and in 2016, they experimented with a specific type of red seaweed called Asparagopsis. 

Liyann Maskati: After hearing about these experiments, Dr. Ermias Kebreab, Breanna’s advisor, was inspired to try it in his lab as well. 

Ermias Kebreab: The first thing we did was try to see if we could replicate what they did in Australia….

Elise Ryan: And they found similar results. 

Breanna Roque: So then what we did was we actually moved to this experiment into the animal. 

Liyann Maskati: They found that cows that consumed small doses of seaweed along with their feed, released 82 percent less methane. 

Elise Ryan: And their experiment showed that the dairy and beef products were not affected by the seaweed — the taste, texture, all of it stayed the same. 

Ermias Kebreab: And also the active ingredient bromaform was not detected in the meat as well. So that’s all good news.

Liyann Maskati: Looking ahead, Ermias said he’s hopeful that companies will be able to grow lots of seaweed for this purpose, and that farmers will be open to feeding it to their cows. 

Megan Hall: Important follow-up question: do cows…. like seaweed?

Liyann Maskati: Breanna was in charge of feeding the cows participating in the experiment. 

Breanna Roque: Initial introduction of seaweed into their diet, the cows kind of picked around it, then, after a few weeks, we saw the animals eating the seaweed right away.

Elise Ryan: Maybe one day cows will be feasting on seaweed all over the place. But that won’t completely solve the problem- there are lots of greenhouse gas emissions that come from cow manure and growing cattle feed. 

Liyann Maskati: So, even without cow burps, your hamburger would still contribute more to climate change than some chicken or a plate of vegetables.

Elise Ryan: But any step towards reducing emissions from cows is a step in the right direction.

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Elise and Liyaan! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio. 

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