Seaweed-based superfood revolution could end world hunger and save the planet

Every winter, Briana Warner searches for leftover seaweed on the cutting room floor, so she can spread it over her garden before she puts it to bed for the season, but it is often missing. “I work in a seaweed company, and even there it’s hard to reach,” laughs the CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. “Farmers collect the leftovers at the end of each week to give to their pigs. It’s in high demand. »

Seaweed has its heyday: Use of the sea plant is a rapidly growing trend that could contribute to everything from global food security to climate change. Algae grow quickly, contain many vitamins and minerals, and produce up to 11 times the biomass of wheat and corn. It is vastly underutilized despite its rapid growth rate, and recent studies reveal that it could absorb as much carbon as the Amazon.

But despite its considerable benefits, America has been slow to embrace seaweed farming. In fact, about 95% of edible seaweed in the United States is imported. This is partly the result of an arduous and expensive permitting process, as well as a lack of public understanding of the benefits of seaweed and how it can be grown.

The seaweed trade is worth around $14 billion worldwide. Although the US seaweed industry is relatively nascent, there are signs that the market is changing domestically: the volume of US imports has been declining, even though consumption has been growing at around 7% per year. A recent projection for the seaweed snack market showed that 30% of global market growth would come from North America.

Ocean forests an untapped resource

The oceans cover more than 70% of the planet’s surface and yet contribute 2% of the world’s food. Algae remain an untapped potential food source. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has even gone so far as to call seaweed “valuable allies” in the fight against hunger.

Research published in September revealed how extensive ocean forests are – covering an area twice the size of India – amounting to a vast mine of nutritious food that requires no additional resources to produce. The study found that these forests produce, on average, between two and 11 times more biomass per area than intensive crops such as maize and wheat, meaning they could hold the key to combating the disease. food insecurity.

“It sounds like the most exciting climate resilience story we’ve seen… They’re growing something that’s done without arable land, without using fresh water, and carbon and nitrogen being extracted from the water, which makes the ocean healthier.”

Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms

Seaweed is an incredibly resilient organism, and some species, like giant kelp, can grow up to two feet a day and reach heights of 175 feet. It is also highly nutritious, containing high levels of protein, essential minerals and vitamins.

“Seaweed has always been assigned to the specialty food aisle and as a result has remained largely inaccessible to the public,” says Eliza Harrison, program manager for Ocean Rainforest, a company that grows seaweed for animal feed. food and cosmetics producers. . “By exploring alternative applications, such as meat substitutes, seaweed could be incorporated into more familiar foods, increasing consumption in the United States”

It’s starting to happen, albeit slowly. Companies such as Atlantic Sea Farms, Umaro Foods, and AKUA have launched sea vegetable burgers, seaweed bacon, and dried kelp as seaweed-based protein options.

Yet in the United States, seaweed cultivation is far from common. Although seaweed is part of the daily diet in Asia and among coastal indigenous peoples in North America, it remains a niche ingredient in much of the Western Hemisphere.

“We’ve been slow to embrace seaweed farming,” says Paul Dobbins, director of seaweed and shellfish farming for WWF US, “partly because there has to be a market for it.”

“A huge carbon sink”

Numerous recent studies have highlighted algae as one of the most viable solutions to climate change, including the recent September study which estimated that kelp could absorb as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest.

“Algae have all the characteristics required to be classified as a blue carbon habitat and a huge carbon sink,” write the authors of a study published in May in Renewable and sustainable energy reviews. He notes that algal farming offers potential alternatives for future energy, decarbonization, food security, and global climate change mitigation.

There are barriers to implementing such operations, including the acquisition of agricultural permits, a lack of agricultural knowledge, and low consumer demand for the product.

“Algae farming could contribute to deep-sea carbon sequestration, but there are many ‘buts,'” warns Schery Umanzor, assistant professor of aquaculture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “In short, algae may be one of hundreds of strategies we need to mitigate climate change.”

Besides acting as a natural carbon sink and a nutritious snack, kelp has also been used in more innovative experiments. In Maine, a startup called Running Tide is pioneering a model that uses kelp to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Alaska, GreenWave, a company started by a former fisherman, is training indigenous communities to build kelp hatcheries. And in California, a dairy farmer is testing a feed derived from seaweed that reduces the amount of methane that cows release when they burp.

Considering a cow spews 220 pounds of methane every year, which is the equivalent of burning 900 gallons of gasoline, that could make quite a difference.

Sustainable jobs for fishermen

Along coasts, seaweed can provide a sustainable livelihood for communities that have traditionally depended on fishing, a benefit of seaweed farming that Warner’s company has focused on.

Atlantic Sea Farms was the first and remains the largest seaweed farm in the United States. The Maine-based company opened in 2009, aiming to bring job security to coastal fishermen, who have seen their livelihoods decimated due to climate change, new federal regulations aimed at protecting whale populations and overfishing.

“In Maine, lobster fishing is pretty much the number one way to make money,” Warner says. “We are finding ways for fishermen to diversify their income as climate change increasingly threatens the fisheries in which they work.”

Last year alone, the company produced approximately 1 million pounds of kelp with 30 of its partner farmers, who receive kelp seed, training and infrastructure to start operating.

“This looks like the most exciting climate resilience story we’ve seen,” Warner continues. “They’re growing something that’s done without arable land, without the use of fresh water, and carbon and nitrogen are taken out of the water, which makes the ocean healthier.”

Knowledge gap

Raising awareness about algae cultivation and the abilities of algae is crucial, notes Dobbins. “There is a lack of understanding of how it is grown. How do you create the seed? How to design and design a farm? How do you treat it? How do you market it?

Companies like Blue Dot Sea Farms, with their “Seacharrones” — a seaweed version of pork chicharrones — and Blue Ocean Goods — which partners with chefs to put seaweed on plates — have worked hard to change that.

“It’s a strategically important crop for food safety,” says Dobbins. “But we don’t see algae growing in our waters like you would if you lived in one of the western Pacific countries that have the most productive algae industries.”

The industry, according to Dobbins, has grown 8% year-over-year since 2010. “If it continues at this rate, algae will overtake potato production around 2051.”

Seaweed may seem like a miracle crop, but there are still many hurdles to overcome for it to surpass potato production: a lack of access to capital for potential farmers, public acceptance of seaweed farming and a more streamlined authorization procedure. processes all impede growth, notes Dobbins.

However, Atlantic Sea Farms’ Warner believes the state-led licensing process, which can take up to three years in some states, will ensure the industry grows responsibly. Currently, states have jurisdiction over the three miles of ocean closest to shore. “We are creating a whole new market for seaweed in the United States,” she explains. “But you have to be thoughtful. It must be done with care. »

There have been challenges in the process of intensive seaweed farming in Asia, including changes in marine ecosystems and an increase in disease.

“We don’t want to make the same mistakes we made in land farming,” adds Dobbins. “There’s a lot to do for algae, but we want to make sure it gets done right.”

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