Seaweed: sustainable crop of the future?
Limited land resources mean that seaweed farming could play a part in satisfying our ever growing demand for food and animal feed. The industry in Europe is in its infancy, but in Norway researchers and seaweed farmers believe a long coastline and clean, cold waters mean seaweed has the potential to be a significant and environmentally friendly industry
Produced by Alpha Grid
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The world's oceans currently only provide a tiny fraction of the planet's food, but limited land resources mean that farming the ocean may be essential if we're to meet our ever-growing demand for food and animal feed. Seaweed farming could satisfy part of that demand, which is why I've come to Freya on Norway's west coast.
Welcome, welcome to Freya.
Thank you. Jon Funderud is taking me to a 19-hectare kelp farm. The company that runs it was founded in 2009 and aims to provide sustainable food, animal feed, bioplastics, and biofuels. But our first stop is on the nearby coast to take a closer look at the farm's source material.
That's part of a large kelp species, which is the fast growing large brown seaweeds which we grow out in the farm.
It's nice and salty.
Mother plants, like those on the rocks, are collected and brought back to the lab where they can produce millions of new seeds. When we get to the farm itself they're sowing seeds back into the water attached to these ropes.
We'll just leave them here for another 47 months before we harvest them in springtime. We're going to go back and harvest them in about April or May, and they will reach the size of almost two metres in length.
This footage, taken from a previous harvest, shows how quickly the seeds grow. Next spring's harvest will yield about 150 tonnes of seaweed, about half the total volume harvested in Norway. Globally, commercial cultivation of seaweed amounts to around 30m tonnes. And Asian producers account for about 97 per cent of that. The industry's only in its infancy in Europe, but Jon strongly believes that should change.
We're talking about a plant that grows faster than any land plant. Seaweed doesn't need any feed, there's no fertiliser, no pesticides, no freshwater media, no land use. So it's very resource efficient production and it's as sustainable as food production can get.
The Norwegian government has given farming licences to around 100 sites. But for the industry to grow significantly, what's already a relatively costly production process would need to expand to offshore locations. Is this process right now expensive?
At this scale, everything is expensive. There is a lot of sea operations for a small amount of biomass coming out. But as this industry grows the cost will drop quickly. And again, considering there is no input factors into this, you only need sunlight on the seawater, it will be a very cost-efficient biomass production in the future.
A few hours drive away in Trondheim, the scientific research group, SINTEF, is looking at ways to efficiently industrialise seaweed production.
Welcome to SINTEF Sealab.
Along with her collegues, Silje Forbord wants to improve farming efficiency through onsite technology, mechanisation, and improved breeding programmes.
What we are doing in these tanks are that we trick them to produce the seeds outside of the season. Usually, this seed production happens at the winter time. But here, we can simulate the winter situation.
So how much seaweed will this little plant turn into?
Oh, this could be several thousand kilos.
Here due to Norway's long coastline and clean cold waters, they believe seaweed has the potential to be a significant industry.
So in a report we published some years ago, we estimated a production of 20m tonnes by 2050. So we have to do a lot more research to reach that goal and learn people the benefits about eating seaweeds.
If they did reached that 20m tonnes they could extract 100,000 metric tonnes of protein, about one third of the mass of soy protein that Norway currently imports annually for salmon feed. But here, they're also constantly searching for new uses for what they see as a massively underutilised resource.
We can use extracts, for example grown components of seaweed like this or like this that we can package in a way that you can take it as, for example, a replacement or an addition to your multivitamin that you take every day in the morning. I don't think it can be stressed enough how little seaweed is used in the industries where it's already used now and how much potential there is for growth.
Seaweed is still very much a niche product. But according to MarketsandMarkets, the seaweed cultivation market size is estimated to nearly double over the next five years to be worth around $30bn. So maybe there is value to be had in this crop of the ocean.