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Alex Baker, CEO, FutureFeed
Alex Baker, CEO, FutureFeed. Image credit: FutureFeed

Red seaweed was billed as a gamechanger for livestock methane reduction… so when will it deliver?

April 23, 2024

A potent greenhouse gas, methane is generated by manure as it decomposes. As a double whammy, it’s also belched out by ruminants, who produce it in a stomach compartment called the rumen, where microbes break down complex carbs to produce gases that are converted into methane by another set of microbes.

Several feed additives have been developed to disrupt the metabolic pathways of these microbes, from DSM’s 3-NOP (Bovaer), to firms deploying garlic and bitter orange. Of the available solutions, red seaweed (Asparagopsis) is widely seen as among the most promising, with studies suggesting it can deliver up to 90% reductions in enteric methane in beef feedlots and 40%+ reductions in pulse-fed dairy cattle, coupled with improved feed efficiency. This compares to a 30% reduction for dairy cattle and up to 45% for beef cattle from Bovaer.

But there are challenges to growing Asparagopsis at scale, stabilizing its bioactives post-harvest, and establishing tools to deliver a return on investment for farmers, says FutureFeed, the Australian startup that owns the global IP for the use of red seaweed for livestock methane reduction, and issues licenses to companies growing it for this purpose.

So what progress has been made since FutureFeed was launched in 2020? AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with CEO Alex Baker (AB) to find out…

Alex Baker, CEO, FutureFeed
Alex Baker, CEO, FutureFeed. Image credit: FutureFeed

AFN: How would you characterize the current state of the industry for Asparagopsis for livestock methane reduction?

AB: What’s exciting is that Asparagopsis is a natural product that can drive both significant reductions in greenhouse gases and potentially deliver extra productivity [via improved feed conversion]. If we can get it formulated into a product that is consistently delivered into beef and dairy systems, we’ve got a winner.

But right now, FutureFeed licensees are all in the early stages. Some are still developing cultivation methods, some have products in commercial trials and some have made sales, so we’ve had some small royalty returns from them already, which is terrific.

CH4 Global has begun commercial deliveries [of a feed supplement for beef feedlots to CirPro Australia], which is really exciting, and Sea Forest has developed oil products and they’ve gone through feeding studies with some large groups.

Volta Greentech has also collaborated with partners to produce [methane-reduced beef] products and is building scale so it can supply more European customers.

Immersion Group is working with a Japanese partner [Nissui], and CleanEyre Global is developing at scale.

Cultivation at scale still presents challenges, plus there are ongoing jurisdictional and regulatory pathway challenges simply because it’s a new thing.

AFN: Where does FutureFeed fit into all this and how is it funded?

AB: The research [into Asparagopsis and cow burps] came out of Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, James Cook University, and Meat & Livestock Australia going back to 2014, but FutureFeed was founded in 2020 to drive commercialization of the tech.

We’re supported by CSIRO, Woolworths [via corporate venture arm W23], GrainCorp, Harvest Road [part of Tattarang], AGP Sustainable Real Assets, and Cultiv8 Funds Management.

FutureFeed holds the global IP for the use of Asparagopsis as a livestock feed ingredient for reducing methane and has patent applications around a method of use for productivity gains [improving feed conversion rates], and the process of manufacturing vegetable oil-based Asparagopsis products.

But we don’t grow seaweed or make products ourselves. We license our IP to companies that grow Asparagopsis for livestock methane reduction. So anyone can cultivate Asparagopsis, but if they want to feed it to animals to reduce methane or improve performance, they come up against our IP.

AFN: How many licenses has FutureFeed issued to date and how do you make money?

AB: We’ve licensed nine partners across Australia and New Zealand, North America, and Europe. It’s a licensing model that’s driven by royalty payments; we only start making money once our licensees start selling.

AFN: How are feed supplements containing Asparagopsis for enteric methane reduction regulated?

AB:  The clearest regulatory path is in Australia and Europe. In Australia, dried Asparagopsis is an approved feed material, while oil-stabilized Asparagopsis can also be used as a feed material as long as it meets Excluded Nutritional or Digestive (END) requirements.

In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has different categories. For whole seaweed, you could go and sell it today as a feed material. An extract or otherwise is a feed additive, which requires an application process.

In the US, there’s currently nowhere clear for it to sit. If you were to go through the full veterinary drug application, that’s extensive and probably has some unnecessary elements to it, given the nature of the product. But the FDA is working with Congress to get legislative authority for a regulatory pathway for things like Asparagopsis supplements. [The pathway covers “substances added to animal food or drinking water that… may affect the microbiome of the animal, affect the byproducts of the digestive process, or reduce pathogens in food products made from the animal.”]

There’s a bill [Innovative Feed Act] in the Senate that hopes to develop an additive pathway, which the FDA can basically build guidance around and help this new class of products get to market in the US.

AFN: Aside from issuing licenses, what does FutureFeed do?

AB: We continue to work on product development, formulations, and understanding the chemistry of Asparagopsis products in a deeper manner, and as we uncover things there, we will continue to file IP that can be utilized by licensees.

AFN: What form do the Asparagopsis feed supplements come in?

AB:   Asparagopsis can be included in feed and supplements as a stabilized freeze-dried powder, or in an edible oil [fresh seaweed in oil, which would save on drying costs]. The dry meal product is the easiest form, but there are stabilization requirements for maintaining the bioactive content.

Some farmers routinely have oil going into feedlot TMR [total mixed ration] for example, so for them, there’s some logic of using that as a way of getting it [Asparagopsis] into the [feed] system; the form you choose really depends on what your customers want.

I saw the announcement about research from Cornell [with FutureFeed licensee Symbrosia and Danone into the efficacy of oil extracts vs freeze-dried products] but there’s a little bit of reinventing the wheel here, as a lot of this research has been done. We’ve already shown there’s an equivalence between dry meal and the oil extract when it comes to methane reduction.

AFN: Which bioactives in the seaweed confer the methane-reducing effect?

AB:  Bromoform is the most abundant of the haloform metabolites in Asparagopsis, but there are others. Plus, haloforms are only one of 12 classes of bioactives in the seaweed, so there is more to be understood here and likely a halo effect [from multiple bioactives at play].

AFN: Do we need more research to prove the efficacy of Asparagopsis for livestock methane reduction?

AB: There’s a growing body of published data out there and by the middle of this year FutureFeed and our research groups will have 22 peer reviewed publications. Then there is other independent research that’s also been peer reviewed showing the safety and tolerability of these supplements both for animals and on the milk and meat from these animals.

One study we published this year actually shows a sensory benefit [in the final product] from having some seaweed in the TMR. Meanwhile residues of the bioactives [in milk or meat] are either below limits of detection, or at very low levels, and under legal limits for bromoform.

Each feeding system needs to be looked at, and there’s a lot of work that is to come with respect to how to get it in a grazing situation and extend stability, and then how do you measure that [both what the cows have consumed and how much methane they are emitting]? It’s easy to measure in a grain feedlot when all the cows are at the buffet eating every day, but when you’ve got animals that are out, it’s harder, so we’re doing a heap of work around measurement.

There are also ongoing conversations around bromoform: What does it do? Does it stay in the cow? Is it going to harm me? So we’re addressing specific technical questions we believe regulators will ask around the general profile and safety of the product, which is either the whole meal of the seaweed or some fragments thereof, which contains a number a whole bunch of things.

So what we have to do is to define that and then work our way through the requirements of each of the regulatory jurisdictions, so there’s a range of questions with respect to chemistry, manufacturing control, the efficacy piece, and the safety piece. But we think we’re in pretty good shape, although there are some studies that will go on for the next couple of years.

AFN: Who is paying for all this research?

AB: We’re paying directly but there is also grant money available. So for example, the Australian federal government has put AUS$29 million towards understanding livestock emissions, and we accessed some of that in round one [of the applications process] and have just put in for round three.

AFN: Are new companies applying for licenses all the time?

AB: We have at any one time 50 different groups trying to understand what they need to do to get a license, but we go through a pretty intensive vetting process as they need to be able to develop and manufacture a product as well as grow the seaweed at scale.

It doesn’t make any sense to have 400 cultivators making a product of unknown quality and quantity.

AFN: Why is it so challenging to grow Asparagopsis at scale?

AB: It’s a wild type seaweed that has not historically been grown commercially and it doesn’t float on the top of the water, so you have challenges with any submerged system [ensuring it accesses light, nutrients evenly etc]. Plus in a tank system, you’ve got to continue to keep CO2 and all those dissolved components turning over.

Some companies are also looking to exploit the lifecycle to maximize density. So in the first stage it grows a bit more like microalgae, and then in the adult phase it’s really more like a plant, so to increase density, some growers are looking at keeping it more in that earlier phase.

But each licensee has its own proprietary approach to cultivation, which will be a key point of competitive difference, although they tend to fall within three general buckets.

You can grow it in the ocean; you can grow it in a more intensive terrestrial manner, similar to microalgae propagation; or you can take an indoor bioreactor type of approach. [Firms such as Number8 Bio or Rumin8 using precision fermentation to grow components found within Asparagopsis such as bromoform do not come up against FutureFeed’s IP so do not require licenses.]

The form of the product is down to them [FutureFeed licensees], but we can help with respect to standardization around Asparagopsis quality.

AFN: Are there many kinds of Asparagopsis?

AB: There are two species, taxiformis and armata; our IP covers both.

AFN: Can you engineer Asparagopsis to make it produce more bromoform or other bioactives?

AB: I think work on genetics is to come, whether it’s to increase growth, bromoform levels, or something else.

AFN: Is there a clear ROI for farmers using Asparagopsis in feed? Or will it just become a condition of doing business with major ag buyers?

AB: I think the fact it improves feed conversion rates will help drive adoption. Farmers have been saying, ‘I’ve been running this place for years and now you’re telling me I’ve got to do all these new things, and I have to pay for them?’ That’s not going to work. We have to give farmers something else as well as methane reduction. We also see indications that governments could mandate the use of these kinds of products in future.

AFN: But what data is there to show improved feed conversion rates?

AB: We’ve got data coming out soon on a herd of 300 steers that will be published soon that will give us a pretty good indication of what that will look like. Plus, there’s other groups out there working on it. There’s also some earlier published work that shows it.

If we can get a product that delivers productivity and methane abatement, that’s a win-win.

AFN: What about carbon credits?

AB: I think carbon credits are a way of getting things moving as most of big food companies and retailers have signed up to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and have scope three reporting requirements.

But we need to agree the methodology for measuring and claiming the abatement from feed additives in order to improve the reputation of carbon credits used for offsets (see p22 of FutureFeed’s latest report). So FutureFeed has helped establish an industry working group to develop methodology under the Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) scheme enabling farmers using Asparagopsis in feed to generate carbon credits.

Cows in a feedlot or feed yard
Image credit: istock/Clinton Austin

Feeding systems

According to FutureFeed, Methane reductions of 80%+ have been consistently achieved in beef feedlot trials, while for dairy cattle in Australia, Asparagopsis is being incorporated in feeding regimes through a pulse feeding system when cows are in a milking parlor twice a day. In this setting, methane emission reductions of 40%+ have been achieved.

Research into the application of Asparagopsis for grazing systems is underway.

FutureFeed licensees:

  1. Blue Ocean Barns (USA): Grows Asparagopsis on-land in a continuous filtered seawater medium. Says it has a 9-year purchase agreement with a Fortune 200 company.
  2. CH4 Global (US/Australia): Grows Asparagopsis in patented vessels on land; has patented processing method (not freeze-drying or oil extraction) it claims reduces the loss of volatile bioactives, provides stability and reduces cost, waste and energy use. The supplements generated at the firm’s new facility in South Australia, which will be operational in the middle of this year, have already been allocated to three buyers. [Disclosure: AgFunderNews’ parent company AgFunder is an investor in CH4 Global.]
  3. CleanEyre Global (Australia): Focuses on land-based production in an upright bag system. Processing methods include oil extraction and freeze drying. Running feedlot trials with EnviroBeef this year.
  4. Immersion Group (Australia): Focused on onshore production in a proprietary cultivation system; achieving significant bromoform concentrations using a stage-based approach to treating the seaweed before it enters the freeze dryer. Has partnership with Japan-based Nissui Corp and a new pilot facility in Victoria.
  5. Sea Forest (Australia): Combines marine and land-based cultivation. Makes vegetable oil-based product for inclusion into total mixed rations for feedlot cattle or in pellets, loose mixes, lick blocks or molasses-based supplements. Has conducted multiple trials and works with Australian burger chain Grill’d to develop a ‘low emissions burger.’
  6. SeaStock (Australia): Specializes in on-shore cultivation in large scale photobioreactors. Has patented dual extraction method for obtaining bromoform for use in canola and vegetable oils and natural pigments.
  7. Symbrosia (USA): Has launched commercial grazing beef studies in Hawaii and Oregon with a third coming up in California. Also working on dairy trials with the University of Minnesota and Organic Valley.
  8. Synergraze (Canada):  Trials have focused on feedlot operations, with pasture-based environments targeted for 2025.
  9. Volta Greentech (Sweden):  Grows Asparagopsis in shallow ponds in a greenhouse environment, conducts freeze drying and oil immersion. Conducted three on-farm trials delivering reductions of 70 – 90% using Asparagopsis from a pilot production facility in Lysekil. Trials with beef cattle in the UK and dairy cows in Sweden are planned this year.

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