Seaweed could be a vital ingredient in the fight against climate change

Like many coastal communities around the world, people living by the sea in the United Kingdom have been collecting and consuming seaweed for centuries.

In Wales, Welsh laurelbread, made from seaweed called seaweed, is a culinary delicacy so revered that it has protected designation of origin status.

Seaweed’s use doesn’t end at the dinner table: Today, it’s found in everything from cosmetics and pet food to gardening products and packaging.

With growing concerns about the environment, food security and climate change, this moist, edible sea treasure, which comes in many varieties and colors, could play a major role in our planet’s sustainable future, and the UK wants to act.

Toward the end of April, the project, dubbed “UK’s first dedicated seaweed facility”, celebrated its official opening and participants hoped it would help kick-start the commercialization of a sector well established in other parts of the world.

The Seaweed Academy is known to be located near the Scottish city of Oban. Project funding of £407,000 (about $495,300) was provided by the UK Government.

It will be managed by the Scottish Marine Science Association in partnership with its trading subsidiary SAMS Enterprise and educational institution UHI Argyll.

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According to SAMS, one of the academy’s goals is to stimulate “the growth of seaweed aquaculture in the UK”. In addition, the project will focus on exploring “high value markets” and using research to improve the global competitiveness of British products.

Rihanna Rees is a seaweed researcher and seaweed academy coordinator at SAMS Enterprise. In a recent interview with CNBC, she spoke about the types of work that was done on the seaweed farm.

“It’s a lot less industrial than it might seem,” she said. “When you think of agriculture, you think of big machines, you think of mechanical harvesting, and that’s not the same thing as seaweed farming.”

“When you look at it from the outside, all you see is the buoys in the water, and then under the water, these long ropes with… huge swaths of algae,” she continued.

“When you want to collect it, you go in, take a rope and pull it into the boat – that’s all,” she said.

The seeming simplicity of the process is one thing, but creating a farm is another matter entirely.

“Obtaining licenses from… various entities in England and Scotland can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming,” Rees said. “So, first of all, there are serious challenges to enter the industry.”

Other factors also had to be taken into account. “There are storms, there may be years when it doesn’t grow particularly well, fluctuations in nutrients,” she said.

There was innovation on the horizon, Rees continued, but “it will take a few years to get to the area where we see the optimization needed for real scalability.”

straight ahead

The UK’s interest in seaweed farming and harvesting is not limited to activities planned in and around Oban.

In the picturesque county of Cornwall at the southwestern tip of England, the Cornish Seaweed Company has been harvesting since 2012, providing a glimpse of how the broader industry could develop in the coming years.

Tim van Berkel, one of the company’s founders and its managing director, told CNBC that the firm harvested seaweed from the shore for food purposes.

In 2017, the business complemented this onshore harvest when it began growing spore seaweed on the site of an existing mussel farm in the waters of Porthallow, a Cornish fishing village.

“They grow on ropes suspended in the water like buoys,” van Berkel said, adding that it “is like growing mussels.” According to van Berkel, the company grew two types of algae on the site: sugar algae and alaria.

Despite the establishment of a site in Porthallow, the company’s main focus at the moment is harvesting onshore. “It’s still the core business, actually,” van Berkel said. “There are five, six other algae that we collect … in the wild, from the shores, which happens all year round.”

Other companies looking to make their mark include SeaGrown, which is based in the coastal town of Scarborough, Yorkshire, and is working to set up a seaweed farm in the North Sea.

Further north, Seaweed Farming Scotland’s operations are located in Oban and focus on raising species native to these waters.

Global picture

An aerial view of people working at a seaweed farm in Zhejiang province, China, November 24, 2021.

Jiang Youqing | Visual Chinese group | Getty Images

In 2020, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that seaweed cultivation is “dominated by countries in East and Southeast Asia”.

This industry is big business and FAO specifically notes that the seaweed sector generated $14.7 billion in “First Sale Value” in 2019.

As the commercial seaweed sector in the UK is still in its early stages, it still has a long way to go before it can compete on the global stage.

Seaweed farming in Asia can often be on a large scale, with sites spread over fairly large areas, as shown in the photo above of a farm in Zhejiang, China.

The US also hosts a seaweed farming sector, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there are now “dozens of farms” in New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest waters.

Along with commercial products derived from seaweed farming, there are other benefits, the obvious being that it does not require fresh water.

For its part, NOAA states that “algae are incredibly efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide and using it to grow.” In addition, it is noted that “algae also absorb nitrogen and phosphorus.”

While there are permit concerns in parts of the US, the industry has expanded there in recent years, with NOAA calling it “the fastest growing aquaculture sector”.

It adds that in 2019, farmers in Alaska produced more than 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbons and kelp. “That’s 200% more than the state’s first commercial crop in 2017,” the report said.

Globally, the industry seems to have grown rapidly over the past two decades or so. The FAO report says that global production of marine macroalgae (another name for seaweed) has increased from 10.6 million metric tons in 2000 to 32.4 million metric tons in 2018.

However, not everything was so smooth. “Global production of farmed aquatic algae, which is dominated by seaweed, has grown relatively slowly in recent years and even fell by 0.7 percent in 2018,” the FAO report notes.

An aerial view of a seaweed growing site in the waters of Bali, Indonesia.

Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk | source | Getty Images

And while there appear to be many products and benefits associated with seaweed farming, there are also issues that those in the industry will need to address and carefully address in the future.

The World Wildlife Fund, for example, notes that in some cases, seaweed species have become “invasive when grown outside of their natural range.”

WWF also lists “seaweed farm rope entanglement of protected species” as a “potential problem,” but adds that such an occurrence is unlikely, and “there have been no credible documented cases of marine animal entanglement in 40 years.”

Back in Scotland, Reese from the Seaweed Academy is optimistic about the future. “I think we’re really ready to see growth,” she said. “I just hope the hype isn’t hype for the wrong reasons.”

“And as long as we all… work together to get the message across, get the training and ensure the right development, along with support from governments and investors, then we will see something that is really good for the world, really sustainable. .”

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