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After hearing of ground-breaking Aussie research into how seaweed could reduce planet-warming methane emissions in cows, Sam Elsom left fashion behind.
By Lesley Hughes
Sam Elsom was still working as a fashion designer when he first started discussing methane reduction with scientists in 2017. By 2021, total investment in his seaweed farming business, Sea Forest, was $41 million. Credit:Adam Gibson
The waters of Tasmania’s Spring Bay sparkle in the glorious sunshine, the air softly perfumed with salt and seaweed, and I’m peering into a bubbling tank of fluffy, red-brown balls of algae called pom-poms. A slightly built, bearded man, dark curly hair drawn back into a modest man-bun, gestures to them. “This seaweed,” he says earnestly, “has the power to radically reduce global methane emissions.”
The speaker is Sam Elsom and we are in the heart of Sea Forest, his start-up company with a very big, hairy, audacious goal – to decarbonise the global livestock industry, one methane-belching cow or sheep at a time. Given this level of ambition, the infrastructure we can see around us is rather modest.
There’s a collection of corrugated-iron sheds which house a laboratory and tanks of seaweed, a few large outdoor ponds and a jetty with two no-nonsense working vessels. For a former high-end fashion designer, Elsom appears similarly modest, his casual working clothes now more befitting his new life as an aquatic farmer. He is affable and softly spoken, breaking frequently into shy smiles and radiating gentle delight as he scoops up handfuls of the seaweed, describing it as “one of the most amazing
climate-change discoveries of the decade”.
Asparagopsis armata, one of two species of the miracle seaweed.Credit:Adam Gibson
Elsom’s audience on this day – he’s invited them on a tour – is an eclectic group of philanthropists, actors, sports stars, filmmakers, artists and fashionistas, brought together by Groundswell, a climate advocacy organisation that raises funds for emission-reduction projects. The group is spending a long weekend at the neighbouring Spring Bay Mill eco resort, gently immersed in climate science and solutions.
Elsom had joined us for a dinner of local seafood and wine the previous evening. We’d first met three years prior, when he’d told me about his idea to grow seaweed to save the planet. A lot had happened since, including a multimillion-dollar investment and prestigious business awards. We chatted long into the night about climate change, methane, cows, and his extraordinary journey from purveyor of expensive garments to seaweed farmer.
Elsom is reflective, considered, and so matter-of-fact about this transition that it seems almost normal. I tell him that I’d like to write his story. “Okay,” he says, after a brief pause and one of those shy smiles. “That’d be nice.”
Born in Melbourne, Sam Elsom moved to Noosa with his family when he was 10. He is the second oldest of five children. “My memories of holidays were that they were always in nature,” he tells me, crediting his mum Vicki, who raised the family single-handedly through most of their childhood. In Noosa, he started to surf. “It became my daily routine to walk through the bush to the beach. Water has always been my happy place.”
Elsom planned to study biomedical sciences, “but I’d always loved drawing, though didn’t see it as a career pathway”. Deferring university, he took a gap year in the UK that blew out to 18 months. He dated a fashion designer and eventually enrolled in Central St Martins college in London, specialising in fashion design.
He returned to Sydney in 2000 and started looking for a job. As he describes this time, I get a glimpse of the determination that would underpin his later career pivot. “I didn’t know anyone in the fashion industry and felt like I was on the outside looking in,” he says. “But I kept knocking on doors until someone let me through.” That someone was Michael Bracewell, who offered him a week’s work experience at Bracewell, his women’s fashion label.
Elsom stayed three-and-a-half years, designing everything from street to office wear, before branching out on his own, firstly with T-shirts, then the label Elsom, focused on high-end sustainable fashion. “It was an exciting time for the Australian fashion industry,” he says. “Clothes were being produced locally, and it just felt alive.”
Elsom, the designer, and Elsom, the label, were successful, with the brand stocked by David Jones here, and internationally by the likes of Selfridges in the UK, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Barneys in the US. One fashion magazine gushed about pieces “tailored with aching precision” and a “slick and sexy aesthetic”. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Sheree Commerford, a fellow fashion designer. “My sister Kelly was working for Sheree, and she set us up.”
Success was hard-won. He reflects now that “the fashion industry requires you to be incredibly resilient. You have to reinvent yourself every season and there was never any time to be complacent.” We laugh that this might have been the perfect training ground for growing seaweed.
Elsom in 2015 with wife Sheree and children Sugar and Captain.Credit:Steven Chee
The business and profit margins stayed small, working hours were long and production costs high, an inevitable consequence of his hands-on approach to monitoring every aspect of the supply chain. He’s still frustrated that “many people talk about their sustainability values but are not willing to pay a bit more for a sustainable product”.
“Many people talk about their sustainability values but are not willing to pay a bit more for a sustainable product.”
Success also came with a high personal cost. One planned three-week trip to Mumbai in 2012 turned into a three-month marathon as he travelled among villages across India to shore up cotton supplies. A phone call from home relayed the news that Commerford, pregnant with their first child, had contracted meningitis; he needed to return fast. She recovered, but clearly something had to give.
The light-bulb moment came in September 2017, when Elsom and Commerford heard a talk by the Climate Council’s Tim Flannery about the dire prospects for a warming world. “As we listened, we were both going through an emotional journey,” he says. “Sheree became anxious, and I just became determined.”
But along with the gloom and doom, Flannery also discussed his new book, Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World, an exploration of the potential of seaweed such as kelp to absorb and store large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Tim was delivering the message that this problem had to be seen as an opportunity and people with entrepreneurial spirit needed to step up,” Elsom says. “I felt he was talking to me.”
After he’d finished, according to Commerford, the conversation went something like this:
Elsom: That’s it. That’s what I’m going to do.
Elsom: I’m going to grow seaweed.
The fire lit, he started to read. As Flannery had pointed out, seaweed is a virtually zero-input crop with no requirements for land, fresh water or fertiliser, with the added benefit of providing marine habitat. “Planting things in the ocean and allowing them to photosynthesise just seemed remarkably simple, with no downside,” Elsom reflects. At that stage, “I was just putting one foot in front of another, taking small steps towards something.”
Elsom’s lightbulb moment came when listening to a talk by the Climate Council’s Tim Flannery in 2017: “I just became determined.” Credit:Adam Gibson
The first plan, to grow seaweed for garden fertiliser on a one-hectare pontoon in Sydney’s Pittwater, set between the northern beaches peninsula and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, was soon abandoned as too modest to tackle the enormity of the climate problem. “The pontoon idea was cute, but we need to get rid of gigatonnes of carbon. It was just such a huge thing to get your head around,” Elsom says, “like talking about the universe.”
In the end, it wasn’t the ability of seaweed to store carbon that changed the course of Elsom’s life, but the discovery of something else that some seaweed could do, something so unlikely that even now, it seems almost miraculous.
Ruminants, including cows, sheep and goats, get their name from the largest of the four chambers of their stomach, the rumen, home to a seething soup of microbes that break down plant food via fermentation, providing energy and nutrients to the animal. Some of these microbes, the methanogens, produce methane as a byproduct of their metabolism. A sheep produces about 30 litres of methane on average every day – modest compared with a cow, which generates 250 to 500 litres, 95 per cent of which is burped.
Multiply this by the approximately 1.5 billion cows and 1.1 billion sheep on the planet and that’s a lot of climate warming – about 6 per cent of total global emissions. What makes methane particularly significant in terms of the need for immediate climate change action is that while it doesn’t linger in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, its heat-trapping potential is 80 to 100 times more powerful.
Such is the international concern about increasing methane emissions, the European Union and the US led a push for a Global Methane Pledge at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021. Signed by more than 100 countries, it commits signatories to taking voluntary action to reduce the level of 2020 global methane emissions by 30 per cent in a decade.
The Morrison government did not sign it, with then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce declaring the only way to make that happen “would be to grab a rifle and go out and start shooting your cattle”. If Sam Elsom and his seaweed come good, such a radical solution may not be needed. (Resources Minister Madeleine King recently confirmed that the Albanese government is open to signing it but stressed no decision will be taken until after consultation.)
Seaweeds contain a cornucopia of chemical compounds that variously have antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, super-defences that protect them from being eaten by marine creatures and disease. About a decade ago, the possibility that some of these compounds could be used to improve animal diets caught the attention of CSIRO ruminant nutritionist Nigel Tomkins, who teamed up with Rocky De Nys, a seaweed biologist at James Cook University in Townsville. Apart from the potential nutritional value, the pair had also become interested in an idea that had been floating around the scientific literature for years – that some seaweed compounds might reduce methane production in the rumen.
James Cook University’s Rocky De Nys was so stunned by the methane-blocking capacity of one species of seaweed, he and fellow researcher, the CSIRO’s Nigel Tomkins, feared their measuring apparatus was broken. Credit:Adam Gibson
Tomkins and De Nys tested 20 seaweed species and found that the red algae Asparagopsis was the most effective. It contains a compound, bromoform, which blocks the action of an enzyme needed to convert carbon dioxide to methane. Animals receiving as little as 1 per cent or less of their feed from it produce virtually no methane. The results of the early experiments were so stunning that the researchers feared their measuring apparatus was broken. There was an added bonus – animals fed the seaweed supplements actually grew faster. Less methane, more steak.
Tomkins, De Nys, PhD student Lorenna Machado and postdocs Marie Magnussen and Nick Paul published their work in 2014, and the CSIRO created the company FutureFeed to commercialise the finding as a joint
venture with Meat & Livestock Australia and James Cook University.
It wasn’t long before Sam Elsom’s searches turned up the Asparagopsis-methane connection, and he called a number on the CSIRO website to be told, “Call Rocky.” In November 2017, he did, telling the academic that he was looking for help on growing the seaweed at scale. He wasn’t an expert, he said, but he was curious, passionate and driven. Although they didn’t realise it, the phone call was the beginning of the end of Elsom’s fashion career and would fundamentally change the lives of both men. Sheree Commerford describes that first contact with De Nys as a “rare moment in time … they connected on a unique level … it was really just meant to be”.
“I couldn’t even speak the same language. I was scribbling like a maniac in my book, then Googling the terms later.”
They began to chat every Friday. “I couldn’t even speak the same language,” Elsom says. “I was scribbling like a maniac in my book, then Googling the terms later. At the end of each call, another paper on seaweed would arrive in my inbox.” He mentions those early calls with reverence, still not quite believing that this busy academic would take so much time to deliver Seaweed 101 to a fashion designer from Sydney. “He was just so generous. He treated me like a peer.”
Under De Nys’s tutelage and growing friendship, Elsom’s learning curve was steep. A key fact was that the two species of Asparagopsis with the biggest impact on methane reduction were both native to Australian waters, with A. taxiformis mainly found in warm tropical areas such as the Queensland coast, and A. armata in southern, cooler waters in NSW, South Australia and Tasmania.
Concerns about bromoform, the methane-blocking compound, have already been investigated – and largely dismissed – in terms of its effect on cow health and on the environment. Using tests on rats and mice, the US EPA classified bromoform as a Group B2 probable human carcinogen. These tests, however, used concentrations up to several thousand times greater than in any of the ruminant supplements. Further, bromoform has rarely been detected in either milk or meat of the cows fed seaweed supplements, and when it has been found, its levels were more than 500 times lower than the World Health Organisation standard for drinking water. So far, so good.
The other concern was the ozone layer, which can be depleted by bromoform. But research has shown that the amount of bromoform that would be released by even large-scale human cultivation would be a tiny percentage of that released naturally by seaweeds in the ocean, and not make a significant impact.
But the biggest challenge was the sheer quantity of seaweed – millions of tonnes – required to make a real difference to methane reduction. All their experiments to date had been performed using seaweed collected from the wild, and attempts to cultivate the tropical species, Asparagopsis taxiformis, had failed (the team is considering another attempt). De Nys suggested that the second species, A. armata, common in Tasmania, might be worth a try.
From left: Tasmanian dairy farmer Richard Gardner, who trialled a Sea Forest supplement at his property, Sam Elsom and business partner Stephen Turner.Credit:Nick Green
Elsom’s growing excitement about Asparagopsis was proving contagious. Fashion pal Heidi Middleton, the former Sass & Bide designer, had arranged for Elsom to have coffee with Stephen Turner, a Sydney-based venture capitalist also interested in sustainable fashion. “I guarantee you will start a business together,” Middleton told Turner. She was right. Turner says he was “blown away” by Elsom and the whole seaweed idea. He and Elsom co-founded Sea Forest in 2018, with Turner as chair and Elsom as CEO.
By 2019 Elsom had a plan. Go to Tasmania. Find Asparagopsis armata. Figure out how to grow it. Simple.
About an hour’s drive north of Hobart, the quiet coastal town of Triabunna on Spring Bay is the gateway to the popular tourist destination of Maria Island. Pre-2012, most of the employment in the town was based around logging, an industry that came to a juddering halt with the end of the Gunns pulp mill. Today, many of these ex-loggers are employed in the seaweed business.
The Spring Bay site had been suggested by Craig Sanderson, a marine ecologist at the University of Tasmania, known to some as “the god of Tasmanian seaweed”. The planets were aligning – not only did A. armata grow in abundance in the bay, but part of a former mussel farm there had become available for lease.
Elsom had wound up the Elsom label, but continued to design freelance for other fashion companies to keep the wolf from the door. “I was still doing my day job but was totally distracted by the seaweed stuff,” he says. To figure out the perfect combination of light, temperature and nutrients to trigger Asparagopsis reproduction, Elsom and Turner commissioned research from scientists at James Cook University, University of Tasmania, UTS, UNSW and the University of Waikato in New Zealand. The group held weekly calls, sharing results of experiments. “There was friendly competition among the different teams but also camaraderie – it built a family,” Elsom says. Much of the funding was coming from his own pocket; he and Commerford delayed much-needed home renovations. “It was stressful, and we had to cut back on lots of things.”
When the first COVID-19 lockdown hit, Elsom, Commerford and their two children relocated to Byron Bay to be closer to her family. Elsom was commuting weekly to Spring Bay and returning to Byron on weekends. (He now travels fortnightly, and offsets flight emissions.) Commerford, a multitasking dynamo herself, has taken on the lion’s share of raising their two children as well as renovating an old seaside inn and running a sustainability-focused online creative agency. The family sacrifice has been considerable, she admits, but she’s unfailingly supportive, and “feels privileged to be in the position – and grateful for the opportunity – to do something big”. Elsom, she says, has “found his life’s calling”.
Sea Forest technicians examine tanks of Asparagopsis pom-poms.Credit:Adam Gibson
By 2020, the team’s research was showing enough promise that a funding prospectus raised $5 million in private equity, enabling the purchase of the Spring Bay site and establishment of a laboratory and ponds for land-based seaweed production. The question at this stage for Elsom: “Are we going to be a little seaweed business that’s having a crack, or are we really trying to significantly reduce emissions?”
“From the beginning, there was a requirement from our side that there had to be an alignment of values. It was always about climate change, not making huge profits.”
They decided to have an even bigger crack, and in 2021 brought the total investment in Sea Forest to $41 million, allowing the company to buy two large marine farming vessels and secure the 1800-hectare marine lease, plus an additional 30-hectare site in Swansea, 50 kilometres north of Triabunna. The latter, on an old abalone farm, has 660 ponds, which resemble small swimming pools. Elsom and Turner were fussy about their investors. “From the beginning, there was a requirement from our side that there had to be an alignment of values,” says Elsom. “It was always about climate change, not making huge profits.”
The Sea Forest workforce now numbers 46, including both Rocky De Nys and Nigel Tomkins, the discoverers of the Asparagopsis-methane connection. On my visit to Spring Bay, I watch De Nys as he gestures enthusiastically to a bubbling broth of pom-poms, slipping words such as “tetrasporophyte” and “spermatangial” effortlessly into his conversation as he describes the fiendishly complex three-stage life cycle of Asparagopsis. I begin to understand those first phone calls with Elsom. It’s clear that the genial De Nys is utterly delighted to talk to anyone, anytime, about seaweed.
Initial efforts to grow the species in tanks on land were only partially successful. Cultivating the leafy phase that most people recognise as seaweed proved more challenging – it’s not a simple matter of planting seeds in the water and watching them sprout. But the team eventually figured out how to “seed” the seaweed onto ropes lowered into the sea which could then be hauled in, covered with the leafy stuff, eight weeks later.
Seaweed is grown by “sowing” it onto ropes that are then lowered into the sea and hauled in eight weeks later.Credit:Adam Gibson
The team turned its attention to making the seaweed into something that cows and sheep would actually eat. Realising that the essential methane-killing ingredient was oil-soluble, De Nys developed seaweed “smoothies” using canola that could be added to livestock feed. Finally, they were ready to test it on real animals and, somewhat accidentally, Elsom’s fashion connections helped them find some.
Menswear company M. J. Bale, founded by CEO Matt Jensen in 2009, became Australia’s first fully carbon-neutral fashion brand in 2021. “Matt and I have known each other for 15 years, sharing a passion for sustainability,” says Elsom. A conversation about Sea Forest led Jensen to introduce Elsom to Simon Cameron, a fourth-generation farmer and conservationist in Kingston in Tasmania’s northern Midlands, who supplies ultra-fine merino wool.
Cameron embraced the trial challenge of feeding 48 sheep with the seaweed smoothies every day for 300 days, which showed that not only did the sheep appear to enjoy the supplement with no ill effects, they also continued to produce exceptionally fine wool. A larger experiment measuring methane emissions in 500 sheep is now underway. When Sea Forest took out both the Innovation and the Sustainability categories of the 2022 Telstra Best of Business awards in April, Elsom accepted the awards wearing an M. J. Bale dinner suit.
Elsom with M. J. Bale CEO Matt Jensen, who linked him with a sheep farm to conduct trials. Credit:Melanie Kate
Further proof-of-concept projects are underway. Fonterra, the New Zealand-based multinational dairy giant responsible for about 30 per cent of global dairy exports, has a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Cows in a handful of farms in the Tasmania Midlands supplying Fonterra are receiving Sea Forest supplements – farmer and Nuffield Scholar Richard Gardner’s operation was the first – with their milk already part of the Fonterra supply chain.
According to Elsom, Sea Forest is embarking on its first commercial-scale project, supplying Asparagopsis supplements to 9000 head of premium feedlot beef at the north-western NSW producer, Rangers Valley. In the not-too-distant future, there may be Sea Forest-labelled beef in a supermarket near you. But Elsom is still modest about the company’s achievements. “We haven’t made it yet. We’re on the journey but won’t be there until we’re feeding hundreds of thousands, even millions, of cows.”
How much seaweed would producers like Sam Elsom need to grow to make a significant dent in the methane bomb being produced daily by the world’s livestock herds?
An article published in the journal Animal Frontiers in 2020 calculated that by 2030, feeding 20 per cent of the ruminant livestock in Australia with Asparagopsis supplements would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 13 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective, according to the Australian National Greenhouse Inventory figures, all of the renewable energy production in Australia in 2019 saved about 4 million tonnes.
Sea Forest is doing its bit. At full capacity, the current 1800-hectare lease, proudly described by Elsom as “the largest in the southern hemisphere”, could produce 7000 tonnes of Asparagopsis per year, enough to feed more than 300,000 head of cattle, avoiding annual emissions equivalent to about 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, comparable to removing 300,000 cars off the roads. The lease may soon expand, with the company eyeing off 3500 hectares in surrounding waters.
Some issues remain. Sea Forest supplements must be given daily to be effective, a problem for widely dispersed rangeland animals. Tomkins and De Nys are developing blocks called “licks”, infused with the supplement and salt or molasses to attract the stock, which they hope will deliver the methane-busting magic at paddock scale.
If challenges like this can be overcome, the potential value to the Australian economy of a thriving seaweed industry could be considerable. A 2020 report to AgriFutures Australia from the Australian Seaweed Institute estimated that the Asparagopsis industry could be worth $1 billion by 2040, providing 5500 jobs and reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent. But even with this expansion, it’s clear that Sea Forest alone won’t solve the global methane problem.
Competing companies are cropping up in Australia and internationally, including CH4 Global in South Australia, US-based Greener Grazing, Symbrosia and Blue Ocean Barns in Hawaii, and Volta Greentech in Sweden. Intense research is also being devoted to engineering yeast and/or E. coli to produce pills that could be fed to ruminants to permanently disrupt the methane production in the rumen.
Elsom and Turner are sanguine about the competition. For a start, they gently remind me, the business is not all about making money, it’s about mitigating the climate problem. But Turner, still a businessman at heart, can’t help also pointing out that Sea Forest, having figured out how to grow A. armata through its life cycle on land and in the sea, has a “four-year advantage” over most of the other companies. Turner also notes that the longer-term intention is to supply technical know-how to seaweed farmers worldwide, rather than attempt to keep it all themselves.
The Australian Seaweed Institute estimates that the Asparagopsis industry could be worth $1 billion by 2040 and reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent. Credit:Adam Gibson
Not everyone in the seaweed industry is optimistic. One of the more outspoken critics of the Asparagopsis enthusiasm is Pia Winberg, a marine ecologist and the director of Venus Shell Systems, which develops seaweed supplements for human nutrition. She believes the claims of the Asparagopsis companies, and especially those made by CSIRO’s FutureFeed, are overblown – “an illusion of progress, a bit like clean coal”. Scaling up will be too difficult to be effective in the short- to medium-term, says Winberg, who is calling instead for a focus on fossil fuel emissions from the transport of livestock and meat products. The Sea Forest team shrugs off the criticism: “We’ve just got to throw everything at this problem.”
More general objections come from those who want to do away with the industry altogether. I ask Elsom: wouldn’t it be better to Just Say No to cows and sheep? For all his evangelistic zeal in tackling the methane challenge, Elsom displays marked pragmatism. “People need choices,” he says. “While there are cows and sheep, there will be a need to tackle methane.”
At least 1.3 billion people work for livestock industries worldwide, with 600 million smallholder farmers depending on them for income.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation bears out Elsom’s view, projecting that global demand for red meat will continue to increase at about 1.5 per cent a year due to population growth and increasing affluence in developing countries. At least 1.3 billion people work for livestock industries worldwide, with 600 million smallholder farmers depending on them for income. The market for methane-busting seaweed seems unlikely to diminish anytime soon.
A couple of months after visiting Spring Bay, I catch up with Tim Flannery and ask how he feels about the upheaval his little seaweed book has caused. “I must admit that I was slightly apprehensive when Sam told me that he had decided to become a seaweed farmer,” he says. “It’s a big jump from being a fashion designer and I warned him about the dangers of entering an industry that was so undeveloped. I should have known better.”
When I think back to that beautiful day in the sun at Spring Bay when we stared into the bubbling broth of pom-poms, I feel a sense of rare optimism. As someone who has been researching the impacts of climate change for 30 years, I’ve come to think of global warming as an enormous wall between us and a brighter future. Sam Elsom, for all his softly spoken demeanour, is not content with removing a few bricks – he’s determined to take a sledgehammer and bash out a bloody great hole.
I ask him if he has ever had any doubts about whether this whole crazy idea would actually work. He pauses only briefly, smiling. “No,” he says. “Never.”
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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