Can seaweeds be the answer to our most pressing environmental problems?



Research shows that seaweed could play a crucial role beyond serving as a source of nutrients and food, but also in the fight against some of the worst issues plaguing our world today: climate change and ocean pollution.



Here are some of the sustainable characteristics of seaweeds:

  1. Easy to grow and cultivate. Seaweed doesn’t need to be fed or fertilized, as the crop gets everything it needs from sunlight and the natural nutrients already found in the ocean water. That means there are no synthetic pesticides, freshwater, or deforestation going into the process, all while providing habitats for local marine life and improving water quality.

  2. Absorbs carbon emissions. Macroalgae have the ability to sequester carbon just like other coastal plants, such as mangroves and seagrass, but with a sustainable twist. Instead of storing CO2 close to shore as the organic materials become buried in underwater soil, seaweed is more likely to move farther into deep-sea sediments since its habitat is more rocky and eroded. Seaweed can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways: adding a small amount of Asparagopsis taxiformis—a red algal species—to cattle feed has the potential to reduce methane production from beef cattle by up to 99%.

  3. Combatting Ocean Acidification. The ocean is one of the world's largest carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon chemical compounds to lower high concentrations of CO2 from the atmosphere. Seaweed isn’t just good at sucking up carbon dioxide, it also acts as a sponge for heavy metals and other coastal pollutants (like those from runoff).

  4. Natural soil nutrients. Regeneration of soil in areas that had been dependent on chemical fertilizers. Seaweed-based natural fertilizer provides plants with potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and nitrogen and while its nitrogen content is low, it could be supplemented from other sources.

  5. 100% compostable packaging material. It provides plastic alternative packaging material that is not harmful to all living creatures on this planet.


Speaking of packaging material, in the Philippines, the Design Center of the Philippines, a government agency under the Department of Trade and Industry whose aim is to promote design as a creative tool for improving the quality and competitiveness, and branding of Filipino products in the global market, was working with Cerana Farms, a seaweed farm in Masinloc, Zambales, to develop a packaging solution made out of seaweed. It was featured on this video under Magsasaka TV on Youtube back in 2019. 


It's no surprise that the worldwide seaweed farming market is expected to develop at an exponential rate ($6 billion in 2019). The Philippines ranked third behind China and Indonesia with 1.49 million metric tons of seaweed harvested annually.


The increased demand for seaweeds could mean supporting more jobs and more income opportunities for the agri-fisheries sector while creating better global food security while helping restore our environment in the long run.


We look forward to hearing more from companies such as NotPla, a sustainable packaging start-up based in London, that has designed a packaging material made from seaweed and plants that disappear naturally and biodegrade in weeks. Which is an amazing solution to reduce plastic waste!


There are, of course, some risks to seaweed farming. Large-scale cultivation could have negative ecological effects and change marine habitats if it isn't done carefully. Unregulated or overproducing seaweed could affect the amount of natural light available to other sea-dwelling species that rely on photosynthesis.


However, as research continues to delve into responsible seaweed cultivation as an answer to one of our most pressing environmental issues, we may discover that macroalgae’s wide range of applications exceeds any obstacles.


That is why seaweed associations such as GreenWave, reach out to seaweed farmers and provide education on successful seaweed farming techniques.



The balance will come down to a combination of policy, entrepreneurship, and scientific research, but the collaboration is a noble one, as the investment could provide a substantial opportunity to mitigate climate change and help save our oceans.


“When you look at how we are going to feed the world population by 2050 in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, there is only one pathway,” says Carlos Duarte, a researcher and professor in biological oceanography and marine ecology. “To scale up seaweed farming.”


References:
Can seaweed help solve the world’s plastic problem (January 4, 2022) - https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/notpla-seaweed-single-use-plastics/index.html

Seaweed Farming: Could This Carbon-Negative Crop Help Restore Our Oceans? (August 18, 2021) - https://www.treehugger.com/seaweed-farming-carbon-negative-crop-may-help-restore-oceans-5193937 

Seaweed Farming in the Philippines (October 7, 2020) - https://www.borgenmagazine.com/seaweed-farming-in-the-philippines/

The Ocean Farmers Trying to Save the World With Seaweed (September 4, 2020) - https://time.com/5848994/seaweed-climate-change-solution/ 

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