“The most virtuous material on earth.” That’s how Beau Perry, founder of US-based Blue Evolution describes the humble seaweed. And while the plant has long been cultivated in Asia, where it is a dietary staple, it is now being farmed by a growing band of entrepreneurs across the United States and in Europe, including Perry, who are using new methods and technologies which incorporate environmental sustainability and ocean biodiversity.
Prized for its nutritional value – it is rich in nutrients including calcium and iron and is incredibly low in calories - seaweed is now gaining in popularity across the globe, particularly among health–conscious consumers, and has been named as a top food trend. And it is this growth in demand that is partially driving the increase in the number of seaweed farms outside Asia, which can be found in California, Alaska, Connecticut and Maine, as well as in Mexico and Norway. But the other significant driver is the plant’s potential for feeding a growing global population without destroying the planet.
“If you look at all the projections, from the United Nations and the top agricultural experts … there is no way that there is going to be the kind of food production that they’re saying needs to happen without massive destruction,” said Barry Costa-Pierce, director of the Center for Excellence in the Marine Sciences at UNE (the University of New England). And he went on to say that, “If we want to maintain some sort of semblance of terrestrial biodiversity, we have to learn to farm the ocean sustainability,” which is a view also held by organizations such as the World Bank, which has proposed seaweed farming as one of the best solutions.
And it certainly seems to fit the bill. Seaweed farming requires no land, no freshwater, no fertilizers and zero pesticides. It doesn’t produce methane emissions or nitrogen run-off, and it has the potential to mitigate ocean acidification by absorbing carbon dioxide.
The growing interest in seaweed also extends to its energy potential, and as a promising source of biofuel a possible replacement for fossil fuels. Its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus also means it is able to clean up polluting chemicals discharged by farms, factories and wastewater treatment plants.
If the market is able to increase its seaweed harvest by 14% per year, the World Bank estimates that annual global production could reach 500m dry tons by 2050, which would boost the world’s food supply by 10% from current levels. This in turn would create 50 million direct jobs and, in terms of biofuel, replace about 1.5% of the fossil fuels used to run vehicles.