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These aquatic ‘superplants’ are low-emission, local food for cows

Fyto grows aquatic plants in tanks, which take up less room and use fewer resources than traditional cow-feed farming. And the cows seem to love it.

These aquatic ‘superplants’ are low-emission, local food for cows
[Photo: Bill Reitzel]

Last year, on a dairy farm at Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, the startup, Fyto, temporarily installed a greenhouse that could automatically grow and harvest bright green aquatic plants, such as duckweed that normally grow in lakes or ponds. The pilot was designed to show that the crop could begin to replace traditional cattle feed—and potentially help cut a farm’s carbon footprint by 50%.

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[Photo: Bill Reitzel]
Because the plants grow far more quickly than typical crops in a field, they also use far less land. They grow year-round and double in size every three days, on average. “If you look at the rule of thumb for raising cattle, typically people allocate one to two acres per cow to grow on farm what will be required to have sufficient nutrition,” says Jason Prapas, founder and CEO of Fyto, which spun out research he did at MIT. “On one acre, we should be able to provide the protein for upwards of 60 cows.”

Saving space could mean, in some cases, that farms won’t have to expand. In places like Brazil, growing soy to feed cows is a leading cause of deforestation, and one of the reasons that beef has particularly high emissions. In areas like the U.S., where farms expanded earlier, the system could potentially give farmers extra space to restore trees or prairie plants that can take up carbon, earning the farmer money from carbon credits.

[Photo: Bill Reitzel]
Growing the aquatic plants doesn’t require tilling a field or using a tractor running on fossil fuels. The system also avoids fossil-fuel-based synthetic fertilizer and replaces it with manure from the cows on the farm; this has the extra benefit of reducing emissions from the manure itself. Early tests also suggest that feeding the cows the plants reduces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that cattle produce when they burp. (Unlike seaweed supplements, another way to reduce methane in cow burps, the plants appear to reduce methane simply because they’re easier for the cows to digest.)

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The cows also like to eat the plants. “I’ve never known a cow could gallop until we started to do our pilot feedings last summer,” Prapas says. “And we saw them consistently running over to us when we brought the Fyto feed over.” The crop is nutritious, with key amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids; in the future, Prapas says, the company may also consider growing it for human food. In the pilot at the California farm, the team worked with animal nutritionists and vets to verify that the food had a positive impact on the cows’ health, growth, and the quality of the milk.

Prapas first started thinking about the challenge of animal feed on a trip to India, where he saw farmers face the stress of trying to grow crops for livestock in unpredictable conditions. He experimented with an early system involving aquatic plants there, and then began working on a system that could automatically produce the crop. “We wanted to take advantage of what this plant is capable of in terms of the way in which you can move it, and the way in which it propagates, to have an automated monitoring, feeding, and harvesting system,” he says.

[Photo: Bill Reitzel]
Sensors monitor the plants, and when some are ready for harvest, they flow out of the system in water, and then the water returns to the system. (Despite the fact that the plants grow in water, they use 5 to 10 times less water to propagate than other crops used for animal feed.) The team is continually tweaking the system to improve it. “Our season is three days,” Prapas says. “It’s really amazing how much you can learn about different crops that grow at that pace.” The company is designing the tech to work both for small farmers and for larger producers with herds of hundreds of cattle.

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Because the plants are so productive, the crop can compete in cost with other animal feed. “This won’t have any impact if it can’t be cost competitive with what people need to feed their animals,” he says. “So that’s been key from the first notebook sketches, let alone to the first production units. I’m happy to say that this actually can compete on costs with commodity products. And that’s largely owing to the plant science team helping us get yields that are really an order of magnitude higher than other crops.” The automated system is also as simple as possible to reduce cost.

The startup recently announced that it raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by GV, formerly known as Google Ventures. It plans to come to market later this year or early next year, offering the system first as a service installed on a farm, and selling the feed rather than the equipment. A farmer “can purchase it the way that they would normally purchase feed,” Prapas says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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