Can seaweed help alleviate the side effects of climate change?
The simple plant that’s surprisingly effective (and versatile) in mitigating climate change: Seaweed. The microalgae, which typically grows in saltwater such as oceans and seas, is “incredibly efficient at sucking up carbon dioxide and using it to grow,” according to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Seaweed is considered particularly sustainable due to it being “low-to-no input because they don’t require feed, freshwater, or fertilizer.”
Its environmental impact can be seen both under and above water: In addition to absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and contributing to the Earth’s total oxygen production (scientists estimate as much as 80% of the world’s oxygen is produced from the ocean), seaweed also devours harmful gasses such as phosphorus and nitrogen. The plant also plays an important role in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems, as they “improve water quality and create habitat for other species,” the NOAA study notes. Seaweed is also helpful in counteracting eutrophication — the process through which water becomes overly filled with nutrients, giving rise to unwanted species — by consuming nitrogen and phosphorus from the water and using it as nutrients to grow.
It’s not just about what’s in the air or water. Seaweed is versatile enough that it can be used as a packaging material, for example, making it a viable alternative to plastic packaging that some businesses are utilizing. The push to move away from relying on single-use plastic and to find ways to address plastic pollution has also seen scientific breakthroughs such as relying on microorganisms to help with the plastic recycling process.
There are also a handful of commercial products seaweed can be used to produce across several industries. In pharma, for example, “carrageenan and algins are used in pharmaceuticals as binders, stabilizers, emulsifiers and for creating molds,” and are also among the ingredients used for solid and liquid medications, as well as wound care products. Seaweed also makes its way into several cosmetic products, such as face masks, creams, and shampoos, and is also sometimes used as an organic fertilizer for plants.
And the cherry on top: Seaweed farming is relatively simple, which is another reason for the macroalgae’s farming boom. They do not require fresh water, and another benefit is the fact that harvesting the aquatic plants is undemanding. Rhianna Rees, a seaweed researcher and Seaweed Academy coordinator at SAMS Enterprise, recently spoke to CNBC about the ease associated with farming the macroalgae. “It’s a lot less industrial than it might come across,” she said. “When you think of farming you think of big machinery, you think of mechanical harvesting, and that’s not at all what seaweed farming is about.”
Considering all these benefits, it’s not surprising that the seaweed industry is growing: The seaweed industry reportedly raked in an impressive USD 14.7 bn in “first-sale value” in 2019, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Globally, the sector has been expanding dramatically for decades. A FAO report detailed that seaweed production had surged from “10.6 mn metric tons in 2000 to 32.4 mn metric tons in 2018.”
UK + US are jumping on the wagon: The UK is reportedly upping its efforts to harvest the aquatic treasure, including with the recent launch of The Seaweed Academy, the kingdom’s first dedicated seaweed industry facility. The aim of the seaweed facility is to spur the commercialization of the UK’s macroalgae sector and boost the competitiveness of the country’s seaweed products in a global market that is dominated by countries in eastern and southeastern Asia. The UK government allocated approximately USD 500k for the project. The US is also looking to get in on the seaweed farming game, with the NOAA stating that dozens of farms are currently operational in waters off New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In 2019, Alaskan farmers produced over 112,000 pounds of seaweed, a 200 percent increase over the state’s first commercial harvest in 2017, according to the report. The NOAA dubbed the seaweed industry the “fastest-growing aquaculture sector” in the US.