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Should Ireland start feeding its cows seaweed? The government isn't sure

Studies in Australia and Canada look promising, but the Department of Agriculture still have some questions.

Image: Bernd Settnik via PA Images

THE GOVERNMENT HAS said it’s monitoring international studies into the benefits of feeding cattle seaweed.

Research in Canada and Australia showed that tweaking a cow’s diet to include seaweed could make them healthier and reduce methane emissions by up to 99%.

The research, conducted by a Canadian farmer and researchers in Queensland Australia in separate studies, could be the perfect solution for both environmentalists and the farming community (if proven true).

Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice said that this could be an opportunity for Ireland to develop its seaweed industry, which “could be a big bonus for our economy” but added that more research was needed.

In response to the study, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) said they welcomed any research that “builds on Ireland’s sustainable grass-based model of food production”.

When asked if many members of the IFA are using the method now, a spokesperson said that the only way seaweed would be likely to be given would be as part of a feed mix.

This time of year cattle would be out at grass, so we’re not aware of any farmers who are feeding seaweed.

Light and shadow on a Bavarian meadow Source: DPA/PA Images

The IFA have asked for more research into this area to see if the benefits would work in an Irish context.

Teagasc, the State’s research authority, said it was “closely monitoring the international research” and if results look positive, it would evaluate further.

When TheJournal.ie asked the Department of Agriculture whether there were plans to conduct research of change guidelines, it said that there were some questions before it could be introduced in an Irish context.

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These are:

1. The longevity and sustainability of the reductions in the longer term (feeding trials for similarly promising substances in the past have shown that the emissions reducing effect fades over time as the microbes in the rumen adjust to the new additive).
2. The impact on animal performance/animal health and effect on the livestock products like milk and meat. Is there a risk of residues in produce?
3. The quantities of seaweed required (even at 2% the area harvestable required per annum would be hundreds of hectares) and the collection, drying and processing could be quite expensive.

“Moreover, the red algae in question is not found in Ireland so may need to be imported or a suitable indigenous alternative identified.”

The Department said it would continue to monitor the situation.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine says it has committed over €17 million to 25 agri-food projects in the period 2010 to 2015 alone under its three competitive research funding programmes.

Read: ‘There’s no regard for people’: Why Cork locals are fighting plans to harvest seaweed

Read: Why Irish fishers are right to be worried about the UK taking back control of its waters

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