At the Swedish grocery chain, Coop, there’s now a new product that isn’t available anywhere else in the world: “low methane” beef. Selected stores are selling a limited-edition run of ground beef, sirloin steak, and beef fillets from cattle that have been fed red seaweed—a supplement that cuts emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that cows and steers emit when they burp and fart.
“This is the first time that low-methane beef is going out to consumers,” says Fredrik Åkerman, cofounder and CEO of Volta Greentech, a Swedish startup that grows seaweed. The startup partnered with Coop and a new food company called Protos to bring the food to market in a pilot. The package, featuring a cartoon cow chewing on seaweed, explains the benefit in Swedish; translation: “The secret? Cows are burping and farting less thanks to our pre-addition of algae.” The brand name, LOME, stands for “Low on Methane.”
Each of the world’s billion-plus cattle can burp 220 pounds of methane per year—the equivalent emissions of burning more than 900 gallons of gasoline. Methane is around 80 times more powerful than CO2 at heating up the planet, and it’s a big part of the reason why beef and dairy products have large carbon footprints. (Manure is another problem, along with the impact of growing cattle feed.) But if you give cattle a little seaweed, of a species called Asparagopsis, it can make them burp less. Studies have found that the supplement can cut emissions from cows by 80%, and sometimes as much as 99%.
In other parts of the world, farmers, brands, and seaweed producers are also racing to bring products to market. Ben & Jerry’s is testing seaweed with some of its dairy suppliers as it works on cutting the carbon footprint of ice cream. Arla Foods, a major European dairy company, also plans to begin testing seaweed supplements. (In 2020, Burger King launched an ad saying it would offer a reduced-methane version of the Whopper at a handful of its restaurants, using beef fed with lemongrass, as part of a push to get farmers to embrace burp-reducing foods. But the campaign met with criticism from the beef industry.)
The next challenge will be for seaweed producers to scale up production. Volta Greentech grows its product on land, rather than harvesting from the ocean, because it says that’s the best way to ensure quality; also, it could help production grow. The crop itself grows very quickly, says Åkerman, but the company is still developing the systems it will ultimately use. “We’re still testing different prototypes of growing it in greenhouses and growing it in warehouses,” he says. (Another company growing seaweed on land for cows, Blue Ocean Barns, is also at a fairly early stage.)
The seaweed already has been approved for use in cattle feed in Sweden. And although the FDA hasn’t yet approved it in the U.S., farmers and food brands are ready to use it. “A lot of other food brands that we’ve talked to previously are starting to see now that this is working, and it’s a real solution,” Åkerman says. “Growing is a bottleneck in the production. So we can invest in that now because we know the demand is here.”
Corrections: We’ve updated this article to reflect that a cow can release 220 pounds of methane annually, not daily. We’ve also updated this article to reflect that Burger King’s methane-reduced burger is not upcoming, but was from 2020.