Sunday, August 14, 2022

Seaweed option for methane closer than rules can see

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The head of methane mitigation company CH4 Global spoke to Richard Rennie about the need for speed around methane mitigation, as a lead into his visit for this year’s 2035 Agri-Food-Tech conference.
A stalled regulatory process means NZ’s farmers risk being left behind as Australia seizes on red seaweed as an effective methane inhibitor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While New Zealand’s pastoral sector contemplates what He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) will mean for the nuts and bolts of emissions reductions, Dr Steve Meller says it may pay to look across the Tasman to see how much faster they are moving when it comes to reducing methane.

Despite a history of Australian federal government ambivalence towards climate change, the country’s beef industry has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030 and has looked to methane inhibitors to help get there.

Meller’s company CH4 Global caused a splash in New Zealand in 2020 when it announced it was scaling up its red seaweed aquaculture production for livestock methane inhibitor, to be based at Rakiura-Stewart Island.

But despite the boldness of HWEN, NZ appears to have stalled at a regulatory level in getting Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines rules changed to accommodate methane inhibitors, and Meller fears we may fall behind Australia if accommodations are not made quickly.

“We are already just launching commercially into Australia, but regulations here appear to require a two-year window to conduct research that has already been done,” Meller said. 

“Put most simply, there really is not the time to stall, given the targets NZ has set itself.”

He says all research work he has had done CH4 Global’s natural red seaweed product indicates there is no safety concern, and Australian uptake only reinforces that.

“And you can be sure, by 2030 with only a few exceptions almost every country’s government will have goals aligned to the Paris Accord and NZ risks missing out on accessing something that is on its doorstep right now,” he said.

Given that livestock greenhouse gases are so dominant at almost 50% of emissions, NZ simply has to move quickly and decisively if it is to stand a chance of moving the emission dial at all. 

Dr Steve Meller says NZ risks missing out on a carbon mitigation opportunity if regulations continue to stymie farmers’ ability to adopt that technology. Photo: Supplied

Meller is guardedly optimistic that despite its flaws HWEN will provide the demand “pull” from farmers wanting to get on with methane reduction in a cost-effective way, while the Australians’ move to adopt the mitigation tech will provide comfort to government policy makers here.

The native red seaweed species can obviously be grown here in the wild, but Meller will be using his conference visit to highlight advances CH4 Global has made in land-based production of the seaweed ,which provides greater control over harvest density and consistency.

This includes a more viable option to conventional tanks and discussing a new way of processing the harvested seaweed that does not involve expensive and energy-intensive freeze drying.

He says each of these innovations has reduced the cost of production significantly and together they have put the product comfortably within reach of farmers having to reduce greenhouse gas output, while also improving individual animal performance.

“This is clearly coming through with the published beef feedlot data and we believe it will be the case with dairy. We are working on that now,” he said.

Read: Paving the way for seaweed farming

Overall gas reductions are shown to be up to 90% in published studies to date. 

The company’s latest publicly revealed breakthrough was a year ago when it shared that its collaboration with NIWA had advanced to the point where they could trigger seaweed spore release, allowing it to build quantities on demand in land-based hatcheries, to make large scale commercialisation more viable.

Meller says the areas needed for Australia to become self-sufficient with the red seaweed mitigator are surprisingly small. Estimates are that the country’s 27 million cattle would require about 1400ha of land-based production, and NZ would be less than half that.

“It is possible you could have a facility growing it in the North Island, and one in the South Island to supply the country’s entire needs,” he said.

In South Australia the company is partnering with a group of aboriginal people to build a production facility, and they have hopes of working with iwi here.

But Meller wants to see the NZ Government engage more rapidly with innovators like CH4 Global, lest the ramping-up in production facilities ends up in countries more inclined to pick up the technology with less red tape.

“It’s really up to New Zealand and New Zealand regulators. If they make it too hard, we will go elsewhere.”

The 2035 Agri-Food-Tech Oceania Summit is being held October 10-11.

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