Reality check: seaweed as a feedstock for cattle likely to be nothing more than a ‘niche market’ by 2030

Trevor Whittington Countryman
WA Farmers CEO Trevor Whittington.
Camera IconWA Farmers CEO Trevor Whittington. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The Sunday Times

Many people will have read about the hype of Asparagopsis, the native Australian seaweed that neutralises the methane emissions from cattle.

It was the CSIRO that discovered that using just 2 per cent of the native Australian seaweed Asparagopsis as a dietary supplement can reduce methane levels in cattle by up to 99 per cent and have a material impact on the 10 per cent of emissions that livestock are responsible for in Australia.

Some may even have read about the financial interest that Andrew Forrest’s company Harvest Road has taken in the company Future Feed, which was established by the CSIRO to sell the rights to their seaweed technology.

This lines up with his other Harvest Road investments into cattle stations, farms and a new feed lot in Moora — plus its aquaculture projects in Albany, Kwinana and Carnarvon.

Australia has recently signed up to becoming net zero by 2050 and the cattle industry is setting itself a net zero target by 2030.

The seaweed is huge, with about a million cattle in feedlots, plus 1.5 million cows in the national dairy herd.

seaweed, underwater, kelp
Camera IconThe potential for seaweed as stock weed is a hot topic. Credit: nicholebohner/Pixabay (user nicholebohner)

To provide supplements to all these cows would require around a million kilograms of dried seaweed a day or 365,000 tonnes a year.

That’s a lot of seaweed.

It is not such a big deal if you take into account that global production is around 35 million tonnes.

China and Indonesia account for nearly 90 per cent of production.

Asparagopsis is not commercially farmed in Asia, as the local seaweed varieties are mostly used for human consumption going mainly into salads, soups and garnishes with a global price of around $5kg.

The cost of wild-harvest Asparagopsis in Australia is predicted to be above this price at around $200/kg or $200,000 a tonne.

Future Feed knows it needs to get the price down to less than AUD $5/kg, but even at that price if farmers are paying $500/t for their stock feed then adding 20kg of dried Asparagopsis adds another $100/t to their $500/t feed bill.

Which means your meat and milk products will have to go up around 20 per cent to cover the cost of consuming carbon neutral food, good for the planet but not so good for the consumer.

As for local production of Asparagopsis in Australia any time soon, don’t hold your breath.

Giant commercial aquaculture farms have the potential to produce up to 20 tonnes per hectare of dried seaweed.

This means the 365,000 tonnes of supplement will require nearly 20,000ha of ocean water leases — plus massive on shore support facilities to dry the 3.65 million tonnes of wet seaweed and convert it to a dry product.

Australia has heaps of ocean, and a few small marinas dotted around the coast which can service the industry.

But we are talking about a massive industrial scaled operation more akin to a mining operation.

To put this in context, WA’s 250 rock lobster boats are bringing in around 7500 tonnes of lobster annually.

Cranking up a new industry to harvest the volume of seaweed needed just to feed Harvest Road’s new 60,000 head feedlot in Moora would be akin to building a second rock lobster industry.

As for local production of Asparagopsis in Australia any time soon, don’t hold your breath.

Trevor Whittington

This would be fantastic for the State, but Harvest Road would quickly run into a myriad of environmental approval problems to put in huge nets, buoys, anchors and tens of thousands of kilometres of rope into the middle of the Abrohlos islands.

The previous government started the long painful process of developing 2500ha of aquaculture lease at the islands.

It took nearly 10 years of work to get the approvals, and the conditions attached have not factored in that scale of development.

Then there is the question of the capital and labour requirements.

A 2013, Danish study calculated that a 4000ha ocean based seaweed farm would require start up investment of nearly a billion dollars.

This is probably why we are not hearing that Harvest Road is going into the seaweed business.

This means all roads are likely to lead to China and Indonesia for the production of Asparagopsis.

Assuming deals are done, they still need to get the price down to $5/kg — delivered on farm in Australia — and farmers will need to be absolutely confident in the quality and purity of the product they are importing and feeding to their cattle as one bad sample and people will be searching for rangeland grass fed meat when they go to the supermarket.

Consumers would need to be convinced to pay more for their carbon neutral meat and milk — on top of their carbon neutral power and all the other carbon costs that are coming their way.

My guess is at best seaweed for cows will be no more than a niche market by 2030.

Like every other big aquaculture dream that has been floated for WA, growing seaweed in state in the Abrolhos will never get out of the water at least not until government forces a very large carbon tax onto the production of livestock.

Trevor Whittington is the CEO of WAFarmers.

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