Algae might be an necessary half within the battle towards local weather change
Like many coastal communities around the world, people living by the sea in the UK have been harvesting and consuming seaweed for centuries.
In Wales, Welsh laverbread – made by cooking a type of seaweed called laver – is a culinary delicacy so revered that it enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status.
Seaweed’s uses don’t end at the dinner table either: today, you can find them in everything from cosmetics and pet food to garden products and packaging.
With growing concerns about the environment, food security and climate change, this moist, edible treasure of the sea – which comes in many varieties and colors – could play an important part in our planet’s sustainable future, and Britain indeed wants to.
Towards the end of April, a project dubbed the ‘first facility for the seaweed industry’ in the UK celebrated its official opening, with stakeholders hoping it will help boost the commercialization of a sector that is well established in other parts of the world .
Seaweed Academy, as it is known, is located near the Scottish town of Oban. The UK government has committed £407,000 (approximately $495,300) to the project.
It is operated by the Scottish Association for Marine Science in partnership with its commercial subsidiary SAMS Enterprise and educational institution UHI Argyll.
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According to a statement from SAMS, one of the academy’s objectives is focused on “stimulating the growth of UK algal aquaculture”. In addition, the project will aim to explore “high value markets” and use research to increase the global competitiveness of British products.
Rhianna Rees is an Algae Researcher and Seaweed Academy Coordinator at SAMS Enterprise. In a recent interview with CNBC, she gave an insight into the type of jobs that needed to be done on an algae farm.
“It’s a lot less industrial than it might seem,” she said. “When you think of farming, you think of big machines, you think of mechanical harvesting, and that’s not at all what seaweed farming is about.”
“If you look at it from the outside, you can only see buoys in the water, and then under the water are these long ropes with … huge plumes of algae,” she went on to explain.
“If you want to harvest it, you go in and get the rope and pull it into the boat — and that’s basically it,” she said.
The apparent simplicity of the process is one thing, but starting a farm can be a whole different story.
“Getting licenses from … the various organizations in England and Scotland – that can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming,” Rees said. “So there are big challenges to even get into the industry.”
There were other factors to consider as well. “You get storm events, you get maybe years when it’s not growing very well, fluctuations in nutrients,” she said.
There is innovation on the horizon, Rees said, but it would be “a few years before we get to the area where we see the kind of optimization that we need for true scalability.”
Britain’s interest in growing and harvesting seaweed is not limited to the proposed work in and around Oban.
In the picturesque county of Cornwall at the south west tip of England, the Cornish Seaweed Company has been harvesting since 2012 and provides an insight into how the industry will develop over the coming years.
Tim van Berkel, the company’s co-founder and CEO, told CNBC that the company produces wild-harvested seaweed from the coasts for food use.
In 2017, the company complemented this land-based crop when it began growing algae from spores on the site of an existing mussel farm in the waters off Porthallow, a Cornish fishing village.
“They grow on lines suspended in the water, like buoys,” said van Berkel, adding that it was “similar to mussel farming.” The company grew two types of seaweed on the site, van Berkel said: sugar kelp and alaria.
Despite establishing the Porthallow site, the Company’s primary focus for now is onshore harvesting. “It’s really still the main business,” said van Berkel. “There’s five, six, other seaweeds that we harvest… from the wild, from the shores, which is going on all year round.”
Other companies looking to make a name for themselves include SeaGrown, which is based in the seaside town of Scarborough, Yorkshire and is working to set up a seaweed farm in the North Sea.
Further north, Seaweed Farming Scotland’s operations are based in Oban and focus on cultivating species native to the local waters.
The global picture
An aerial view of people working at an algae farm in Zhejiang province, China, 24 November 2021.
Jiang Youqing | Visual China Group | Getty Images
In 2020, a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization described seaweed cultivation as “dominated by countries in East and Southeast Asia”.
The industry is big business, with the FAO separately noting that the seaweed sector generated $14.7 billion in “first sale value” in 2019.
As the commercial seaweed sector is still in its early stages in the UK, it still has a long way to go before it can compete on the global stage.
Algae farming in Asia can often be large-scale, with sites spread over fairly large areas, as seen in the above photo of a farm in Zhejiang Province, China.
The US is also home to an algae farming sector, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying there are now “dozens of farms” in waters off New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Aside from the commercial products derived from seaweed farming, there are other benefits, an obvious one of which is that fresh water is not required.
For their part, NOAA says that “algae are incredibly efficient at sucking up carbon dioxide and using it to grow.” In addition, it notes that “algae also gobble up nitrogen and phosphorus.”
While there are concerns about the permit in some parts of the US, the industry there has grown in recent years, with NOAA calling it the “fastest-growing aquaculture sector.”
It adds that in 2019 Alaska-based farmers produced over 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbons and bull kelp. “This is a 200 percent increase from the state’s first commercial harvest in 2017,” it said.
Globally, the industry seems to have been on a rapid expansion course over the past two decades. According to the FAO report, global production of marine macroalgae — another name for algae — has increased from 10.6 million tons in 2000 to 32.4 million tons in 2018.
However, not everything went smoothly. “Global production of cultured aquatic algae, which is dominated by seaweed, has grown relatively slowly in recent years, even falling by 0.7 percent in 2018,” the FAO report said.
An aerial view of a site used for algae farming in waters off Bali, Indonesia.
Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk | Istock | Getty Images
And while there seems to be a myriad of products and benefits associated with seaweed farming, there are also issues that those working in the industry will need to address and carefully manage in the future.
The World Wildlife Fund, for example, notes that in some cases algal species “have become invasive when grown outside of their natural range.”
WWF also cites the “entanglement of protected species with rope structures from seaweed farms” as a “potential concern”, but adds that such an event is unlikely and “there have been no credibly documented entanglements at sea for 40 years”.
Back in Scotland, Seaweed Academy’s Rees is optimistic about the future. “I think we’re really ready to see the growth,” she said. “I just hope the hype isn’t hype for the wrong reasons.”
“And as long as we all … work together to get the message across and get the education and get the development right, along with the support of governments and investors, then we’re going to see something that’s really useful for the world, really sustainable.” .”