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In the fight against climate change, seaweed might be a surprising — but vital — weapon

Like many coastal communities all over the world, people living by the ocean in Britain have been harvesting and consuming seaweed for hundreds of years.

In Wales, Welsh laverbread – made by boiling a style of seaweed called laver – is a culinary delicacy so revered that has the status of Protected Designation of Origin.

Seaweed’s uses don’t stop on the dinner table: today it could be present in every thing from cosmetics and animal feed to gardening products and packaging.

With concerns in regards to the environment, food security and increasing climate change, this wet, edible treasure of the ocean – which is available in many types and colours – has the potential to play a significant role in our planet’s sustainable future, and the UK wants it within the act.

In late April, the project, dubbed ‘the UK’s first dedicated seaweed plant’, celebrated its official opening, with those involved hoping it could help kick-start the commercialization of a sector that’s well established in other parts of the world.

The Seaweed Academy, because it is thought, is situated near the Scottish town of Oban. Funding for the project of £407,000 (roughly US$495,300) was provided by the UK government.

It can be run by the Scottish Association for Marine Science in partnership with its business subsidiary SAMS Enterprise and academic institution UHI Argyll.

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According to a SAMS statement, considered one of the academy’s objectives is to stimulate “the event of seaweed aquaculture within the UK”. In addition, the project will aim to explore ‘high-value markets’ and use the research to extend the worldwide competitiveness of UK products.

Rhianna Rees is a seaweed researcher and coordinator of the Seaweed Academy at SAMS Enterprise. In a recent interview with CNBC, she provided insight into the style of work being done on a seaweed farm.

“It’s loads less industrial than you would possibly think,” she said. “When you’re thinking that of farming, you’re thinking that of huge machines, you’re thinking that of mechanical harvesting, and that is not what seaweed farming is all about.”

“When you take a look at it from the skin, all you may see are buoys within the water, and there are these long lines under the water with … huge swathes of seaweed,” she explained.

“When you desire to collect it, you go in, take the rope and pull it into the boat – and that is mainly it,” she said.

The apparent simplicity of the method is one thing, but establishing a farm could be a completely different story.

“It could be extremely costly and time consuming to acquire licenses from … different organizations in England and Scotland,” Rees said. “So, initially, moving into the industry comes with major challenges.”

Other aspects also needed to be taken into consideration. “You have storms, perhaps years where it isn’t growing particularly well, nutrient fluctuations,” she said.

Rees noted that there was innovation on the horizon, but “it could take several years to get to an area where we see the form of optimization we want for true scalability.”

Cross-country

The UK’s interest in seaweed cultivation and harvesting is just not limited to the planned works in and around Oban.

In the picturesque county of Cornwall within the south-west of England, the Cornish Seaweed Company has been harvesting since 2012, providing an insight into how the industry may develop within the years to return.

Tim van Berkel, who co-founded the corporate and is its managing director, told CNBC that the corporate collects wild seaweed from the coast for food.

In 2017, the corporate supplemented this onshore harvest by starting a spore seaweed farm at an existing mussel farm within the waters near Porthallow, a Cornish fishing village.

“They grow on ropes suspended within the water, like buoys,” van Berkel said, adding that “it’s much like mussel farming.” Van Berkel said the corporate farmed two sorts of seaweed: sugar seaweed and alaria.

Despite establishing a plant in Porthallow, for now the corporate’s important focus is on land-based harvesting. “It’s really still the important business,” said van Berkel. “There are five, six other seaweeds that we collect … wild, from the shores, which happens all 12 months round.”

Other firms seeking to make a mark include SeaGrown, which relies within the Yorkshire coastal town of Scarborough and is working to establish a seaweed farm within the North Sea.

Further north, Seaweed Farming Scotland’s operations are based in Oban, specializing in the cultivation of species native to the waters there.

Global picture

Aerial view of individuals working at a seaweed farm in Zhejiang province, China, November 24, 2021.

Jiang Youqing | Visual Chinese group | Getty Images

In 2020, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report described seaweed cultivation as being “dominated by countries in East and Southeast Asia”.

The industry is big business and the FAO notes individually that the seaweed sector generated $14.7 billion in “first sale value” in 2019.

With the UK business seaweed sector still in its early stages, it still has a protracted technique to go before it could compete on the world stage.

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

The US can be home to a seaweed farming industry, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying there are actually “dozens of farms” within the waters off New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to business products derived from seaweed farming, there are other advantages, the plain one being that it doesn’t require fresh water.

For its part, NOAA says that “seaweed is incredibly efficient at sucking up carbon dioxide and using it for growth.” In addition, it has been noted that “seaweed also absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus.”

While there are concerns about licensing in parts of the US, the industry there has grown lately, with NOAA calling it “the fastest-growing aquaculture industry.”

He adds that in 2019, Alaska farmers produced greater than 112,000 kilos of sugar, ribbons and seaweed. “This is a 200 percent increase from the state’s first business harvest in 2017,” it said.

Globally, the industry seems to have grown at a rapid pace over the past 20 years. The FAO report says that global production of marine macroalgae – one other name for seaweed – has increased from 10.6 million metric tons in 2000 to 32.4 million metric tons in 2018.

However, not every thing went easily. “Global production of farmed aquatic algae, dominated by seaweed, has seen relatively low growth lately, even falling by 0.7 percent in 2018.” – we read within the FAO report.

Aerial view of a site used for seaweed farming within the waters off the coast of Bali, Indonesia.

Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk | Istock | Getty Images

And while there appear to be many products and advantages related to seaweed cultivation, there are also issues that those working within the industry will need to handle and manage fastidiously in the longer term.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund notes that in some cases, seaweed species have change into “invasive when cultivated outside their natural range”.

The WWF also cites “entanglement of protected species with seaweed rope structures” as a “potential problem”, but adds that such an event is unlikely and “no credible documented marine entanglement” has occurred in 40 years.

Back in Scotland, Seaweed Academy’s Rees is optimistic in regards to the future. “I believe we’re really able to see growth,” she said. “I just hope the hype is not hype for all of the improper reasons.”

“And so long as all of us … work together to get the message, get the training and get it right, together with the support of governments and investors, we will see something that is really good for the world, really sustainable.”

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