British Columbia

Vancouver Island researchers investigate whether seaweed-eating cows good for people, planet

Could feeding cows seaweed improve the beef we eat and the air we breathe? A research team from North Island College hopes to find out.

Project to determine whether feeding cattle seaweed improves beef, reduces greenhouse gas

Cows at Beaver Meadow Farms in Comox, B.C., munch on seaweed harvested off the coast of Vancouver Island that could have the potential to improve the quality of their meat and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. (Spencer Serin)

A research team on Vancouver Island is trying to determine if feeding seaweed to cows can improve the quality of the beef we eat and the air we breathe.

North Island College's Centre for Applied Research, Technology and Innovation is embarking on the research, which is being led by faculty member Spencer Serin, and has been made possible with a federal grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

According to Serin, the team will be looking at how replacing five per cent of an animal's diet with seaweed harvested off the east coast of Vancouver Island will affect the distinct fatty acid profile of the beef product.

"We are hoping the seaweed will flip a switch and we will see a lot more Omega-6 in there," Serin said Thursday on CBC's All Points West, noting this would make the meat healthier for humans.

The research is being done in partnership with Beaver Meadow Farms in Comox, B.C. where grass-fed cows are now having five per cent of their diet swapped out for seaweed.

Edgar Smith, left, owner and operator of Beaver Meadow Farms and North Island College faculty member and research leader, Spencer Serin. (North Island College)

And the diet change also shows promise of reducing the amount of methane gas cows are known to produce.

"We've seen anecdotal evidence that adding specific varieties of seaweed to cattle diets has resulted in increased weight gains and reduced greenhouse gas emissions," Serin said in a statement.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock and cattle represent about 65 per cent of the livestock sector's emissions.

"Our farm has long been interested in strategies to increase the sustainability and decrease the environmental impact of cattle ranching," Edgar Smith, owner and operator of Beaver Meadow Farms, said in a statement.

The variety of seaweed being used is Mazzaella japonica macroalgae — an invasive red seaweed that often washes up on shore during storms.

The invasive red seaweed is collected from a beach in Deep Bay, B.C., about 45 kilometres south of Comox. The research team is permitted to harvest near the Vancouver Island University Deep Bay Marine Field Station located in the area. (CBC News/Bridgette Watson)

The seaweed is being harvested off a particular section of beach in Deep Bay, where the research team has been given permission to harvest.

"It's not doing anything particularly beneficial for the ecology of the environment where we harvest it, so it's a wasted resource," said Serin, who is happy to be putting it to use.

The project is running from now until December 2020 and will include use of North Island College's lab space for testing. Student researchers will have the opportunity to assist with testing and data collection.

According to Serin, it should be apparent after three months if the diet changes have improved meat quality.

To hear the complete interview with Spencer Serin on CBC's All Points West, tap here.

With files from All Points West

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