Turns out burping can be a big deal. Billionaire Bill Gates has announced an investment in Australian start-up Rumin8, which is developing a seaweed-based feed to reduce methane emissions that cows produce through their burps and, to a lesser extent, their farts.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Although it has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it has 84 times more global warming potential over a 20-year period. Nearly a third of global methane emissions come from livestock and most beef and dairy cows.
Microbes in the stomachs of cows produce methane as the animals digest food, but when algae is added to their diet, it has been shown to significantly reduce the amount of planet-warming gas released. A 2021 study found that feeding cows small amounts of seaweed for several months saw their methane emissions drop by more than 80%.
Rumin8 produces a food additive from the bioactive ingredient found in red algae (Asparagopsis). The company said laboratory tests have shown the additive can reduce methane emissions by up to 95%.
Rather than growing the algae, the company replicates the ingredient in a lab, which it says helps keep costs relatively low. The additive goes into cow feed and the company also aims to produce it in capsule form.
A spokesperson for Gates fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which led the $12 million investment round, told CNN: “While cows are a [greenhouse gas] source, livestock farming remains one of the cheapest sources of protein in the world, meaning technologies that can reduce emissions from the current and future livestock supply chain are critical.
Rumin8 said he had further investments from two climate funds and aimed to have small quantities of food commercially available by the end of the year.
One criticism that has been leveled at solutions such as methane-reducing feed additives is that they can distract from the root causes of the livestock climate problem, including the huge amount of land needed to raise animals and make grow crops for their food.
Rumin8 CEO David Messina said cows remain an important source of protein for billions of people. “Our solution is global and will provide developed and developing countries with a methane-reducing product that will have a massive impact on global emissions in agriculture,” he told CNN via email.
Some countries are considering legislation to reduce methane emissions from livestock. In October, the New Zealand government announced its intention to tax farmers for the burping of their animals, in order to incentivize them to reduce their emissions.