Newsletter: June 19, 2018

Researched and written weekly by the editorial team of Food Technology magazine, the IFTNEXT Newsletter explores what are, arguably, the next big things in the science of food through original reporting of scientific breakthroughs, leading-edge technology, novel food components, and transdisciplinary R&D.

Cow Seaweed
Photo courtesy of the University of California, Davis

Seaweed-enriched feed may reduce cows’ carbon footprint
Incorporating a relatively small amount of seaweed into cows’ feed has the potential to reduce their noxious methane gas emissions, research conducted at the University of California, Davis, has shown. The study, conducted this past spring, was a small one—it involved just 12 Holstein cows—but the results were surprising and encouraging, reports animal science professor Ermias Kebreab. Final findings from the study will be reported next week (June 24) at the American Dairy Science Association Annual Meeting in Knoxville, Tenn., but Kebreab says that for now it is safe to say that emissions were reduced by more than 30%.  

Ruminant animals like cows burp continuously as they digest food in their rumen, which is the first of four sections of their stomachs. Microbial residents of the rumen help ferment the high-fiber diets cows consume, producing gases that combine to form the greenhouse gas methane.  

The UC Davis cow feed study follows laboratory research conducted last year in Australia; that research showed that incorporating 2% seaweed in cattle food could reduce methane emissions by 99%. The seaweed apparently works its anti-methane magic by inhibiting an enzyme that contributes to methane production. At the UC Davis, Kebreab and animal nutrition graduate student Breanne Roque separated cows into three groups: a control, one that received 0.5% seaweed, and one that had 1% seaweed added to their diet. The cows snacked four times a day from an open-air device that measured methane in their breath as they ate. 

“This could help California’s dairy farmers meet new methane emission standards and sustainably produce the dairy products we need to feed the world,” Kebreab emphasizes. Recent California legislation requires dairy farmers and other producers to slash methane emissions by 40% by 2030. Methane accounts for about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Kebreab plans to continue his research later this summer. “We are planning a long-term trial in beef cattle,” he says. “We will be feeding [them] seaweed for up to six months to determine its persistency in reducing emissions without compromising (or increasing) productivity.” 

At this point, the seaweed ingredient used in the study is not commercially available, but Kebreab doesn’t see that as a problem in the long term. “The technology is there, and if there is a demand, I am sure there will be a cost-effective solution. But the industry has to grow to meet demand,” he says. 


Almond Co Products
Photo courtesy of the Almond Board of California

Almond biomass may benefit mushrooms, beer, and plastics
Researchers at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA ARS) are exploring a variety of new ways to use almond biomass—everything from a mushroom-growing medium to an additive for plastics. Given that the 2.1 billion pounds of kernels that California almond farmers grew last year produced 4.3 and 1.5 billion pounds of hulls and shells, respectively, it makes economic and environmental sense to find uses for the biomass.  

“Tree nuts produce about 70% biomass that is not the kernels,” explains Richard Waycott, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California. “So, if you look at it that way, what we really do is grow other things. I think part of this new future that we are looking at right now is how to really take those different products in their current applications and uses and find a way to unleash new value and new purpose.” 

For years, the hulls have been mostly fed to cows and the shells used in livestock bedding. But, the growth of the almond industry in recent years has left farmers with a surplus of hulls and shells. That’s the problem that USDA research leader Bill Orts and his team are trying to solve.  

“Each biomass source that we use is unique,” describes Orts. “Starting with the hulls—almond hulls have unique sugar and we hope that it could potentially be a food ingredient.” The researchers are exploring uses for the sugar after it is extracted from the hulls. One possibility is using it to make hard cider or beer. Given that almond hulls are rather bitter, Orts is working to filter out some of the bitterness. He is working with a major brewery to get feedback and adjust the flavor.  

The sugar could also be used to replace high fructose corn syrup in certain formulations, including nutraceutical bars, for example. In addition, since the honeybees that work the orchards in California are usually feed corn syrup in the winter, they could instead be fed almond hull syrup. 

“We also think that almond hulls can be used as a covering to grow mushrooms and improve the mushroom industry,” said Orts. If successful, the U.S. mushroom industry could have a domestically sourced growing medium instead of having to import peat moss.  

When it comes to the almond shells, researchers are working on using them as an additive in plastics. When heated to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen—a process known as torrefaction—almond shells produce a charcoal-like product that can be used in several different ways including to strengthen and color biodegradable plastics for use as garbage bags, flower pots, and rubber tires.  

“It’s mind boggling in terms of what the possibilities are,” says Karen Lapsley, chief scientific officer for the Almond Board of California. “It’s a research journey so we don’t know what’s going to pan out but I’d say the future is bright in this area. In an ideal world, the California almond industry’s goal should be zero waste in that we are able find homes and fully utilize all of the almond biomass that we produce.” 


Pouring Milk

Meeting the demand for milk sustainably
Got milk? For some consumers, having a daily dose of milk may become a challenge as the demand for milk is outpacing the supply. And finding a way to meet the demand sustainably only adds to the challenge. 

The consumption of milk around the world is expected to increase more than 60% over the next 40 years, and the exporters in the EU, New Zealand, and the United States are having a difficult time meeting the demand in a sustainable manner, says Michael Lee, head of Rothamsted’s North Wyke Farm Platform and professor of sustainable livestock systems at Bristol Veterinary School. It is projected that China will need more than three times as much milk in 2050 as it did in 2010, and this demand can push up greenhouse gas emission from dairy herds 35% and increase nitrogen pollution from dairy production 48%, adds Lee. 

In a paper that examined the potential environmental impacts of the growing demand for milk in China, Lee and his research collaborators found that China and other high milk demanding regions will need to match the production efficiencies of the other leading milk producing countries. Specifically, they learned that changes to animal nutrition such as combining improved rationing and a greater utilization of forage resources and by-products is one way to meet the demands for milk around the world.  

Something else that needs to be done, according to Lee, is to make improvements to production technologies. “We are working with our Chinese partners and influencing governmental policy to develop road maps for a more sustainable livestock production system for China,” says Lee. “Ruminant livestock production and arable systems are reconnected to improve the cycling of nutrients and optimize the potential of ruminants to utilize by-products and grazing lands.”