A swim through the algae industry
You’ve probably heard the news -- seaweed: the new kale, an indispensable addition to your diet. More nutrient dense than any land vegetable, high in soluble fiber, and antioxidants. A promising key to longevity. But beyond its health benefits, the increasing global demand for seaweed is creating a diverse industry of farmers and wild crafters who are cashing in on the hype. Facing the risk of further depleting the ocean and the destruction of wildlife, these farmers are attempting to hone creative solutions for a rapidly expanding industry while minimizing potential damage to the ocean.
More than half the world’s algae on the market comes from sea-based farms off the coast of China, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. And more than 90% of the seaweed eaten in the US comes from Asia. China is by far the largest producer with a yearly production value of 5 million wet tons, mostly cultivating kombu on suspended ropes in the ocean. South Korea follows with a production value of 800,000 wet tones of majority wakame. And Japan comes in third with a production value of 600,000 wet tones of mostly nori. These seaweeds are usually dried and packaged for food, fertilizer, or thickening agents.
To the west, Israel is making moves to position itself within the large-scale commercial production of seaweed. Algatech, based out of the Arava Desert in Southern Israel, cultivates many varieties of microalgae with which they process into cosmetic products and dietary supplements. What appears like long stretches of tubular photobioreactors strewn across the desert floor, Algatech's farm is able to produce high quantities of microalgae in a rather inhospitable, dry climate. Photobioreactors are essentially enclosed vessels that support the creation or multiplication of organisms. Think liquid tanks used to transport amphibian-alien hybrids in any sci-fi movie. They use light as the main growing medium for their stock. In these systems, plants, moss, algae and bacteria can be farmed. Tubular photobioreactors are a popular choice among commercial alga farms for the high-yielding and quick production.
On the other end of the spectrum, small companies and farmers in the U.S. are carving a place in the industry by cultivating local seaweeds sustainably (or at the very least, they are trying). Monterey Bay Seaweeds, based in central California, employs big tanks to grow seaweeds. Salt Point Seaweed, based in the Bay Area, wild-harvests seaweed off the coast of Mendocino County. The company, run by three women, is building one of the first polyculture farms on the west coast with the intent of harvesting local strains that are more popularly imported from Asia, like kombu or wakame. PharmerSea, based in Goleta, CA, is a husband and wife duo who run a 25-acre sea farm, to harvest seaweed for their beauty line. Because seaweed farming produces so quickly and does not require pesticides or fertilizer or freshwater, it has become a rather desirable pursuit. Kelp in particular has an exceptionally speedy system of distributing nutrients and sugar for growth, thriving off nitrate, which is found in cold water. Harvesting season occurs during colder months, making it convenient for fishermen and fisherwomen who mostly harvest during the warm months.
Still, seaweed farming on the west coast in still very young and despite being more popular on the east coast, the industry is still in its infancy. A few things have contributed to this lack of growth. The United States, unlike other countries, has not been eating seaweed for very long. Areas like Scandinavia or Asia, where seaweed has been a food staple for millennia, already possess existing farming resources and know-how just from experience. Pricy and bureaucratic permits are another reason why the industry is still so small. In order to become a seaweed farmer in California, you must first lease a plot of ocean land, obtain a state permit and already have access to a boat in order to harvest your stock. But because California has such strict environmental conservation laws, securing these farming permits can be a lengthy process. Just over the past decade, California has suffered an overwhelming loss of kelp forests due to increasing water temperatures.
There are companies, however, dedicated to easing in to this process and educating potential farmers on this relatively new aquaculture. 3D Ocean Farming is one of them. A nonprofit that helps seasoned and amateur seaweed farmers to build sustainable systems, their designs maximize on space and can accommodate the cultivation of both seaweed and shellfish.
In other news, seaweed farming has become a vehicle of empowering for women in the global economy. In East Africa, seaweed farming has provided women with a successful revenue model that is allowing them to harness control in male-dominated societies. In Zanzibar, Tanzania, considered women’s work, seaweed farming has allowed opportunities for women to gain financial independence and involve themselves in public work. In the Kibuyuni Village of Kenya, women are reaping the benefits of farming of one of the world’s most lucrative crops. On the Bengali coastline, women are being trained in harvesting commercially viable algae, as rice farming becomes endangered in the midst of climate change and men travel farther away from the water to work. Seaweed is offering women a chance to contribute to the economy, as other male-dominated industries are changing.
However, this discussion would be incomplete without addressing the ecological benefits of seaweed. Seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorous, thereby, de-acidifying and cleaning water and diversifying the ocean ecosystem. Kelp can also be used as biofuel through a process called thermochemical liquefaction. The process involves converting kelp into bio-oil with high-temperature, high-compression techniques. Large and small energy companies alike are working to harness this energy (or more likely trying to profit off this emerging blue-green economy). Exxon Mobile, Sapphire and Seaweed Energy Solution are just three companies out of many already making strides in research.
Seaweed is seemingly the answer to everything. It nourishes and cleanses our bodies and the earth and yet, the fear of over-depletion is rampant. Ingenuity will need to direct the control over this strange and fertile matter.