Like many coastal communities around the world, people living along the coast of the United Kingdom have been collecting and consuming seaweed for centuries.
In Wales, Welsh liver bread – made from a type of seaweed called lever – is a culinary delicacy that enjoys the privileged status of source.
The use of seaweed does not end at the dinner table, either: today, it is found in everything from cosmetics and fodder to garden products and packaging.
Concerned about the environment, food security and climate change, this wet, edible ocean resource – which has so much variety and color – could play a major role in the sustainable future of our planet, and the UK wants legislation.
In late April, a project known as the “First Dedicated Seaweed Industry Facility” in the UK celebrated its official launch, with those involved hoping it would help start the commercialization of a sector that is well-established in other parts of the world.
The Swedish Academy, as it is known, is located near Oban in the Scottish town. The UK Government has provided £ 407,000 (approximately $ 495,300) for the project.
It will be managed by the Scottish Association for Marine Science in partnership with its trading partner SAMS Enterprise and educational institution UHI Argyll.
According to a statement from SAMS, one of the aims of the academy is to stimulate “growth of UK suede aquaculture”. On top of that, the project will explore “high-value markets” and use research to increase global competition for UK products.
Rhianna Rees is a marine algae researcher and coordinator of the marine algae academy at SAMS Enterprise. In a recent interview with CNBC, he gave an insight into the kind of job he was doing on a seaweed farm.
“It’s much less industry it could come across,” he said. “When you think of farming, you think of big machinery, you think of mechanical harvesting, and it’s not about seaweed farming at all.”
“When you look at it from the outside, all you see is a boy in the water and then this long rope line under the water … a huge chunk of seaweed,” he went on to explain.
“When you want to harvest, you go in and you get the rope and you pull it into the boat – and that’s basically it,” he said.
The apparent simplicity of the process is one thing, but setting up a farm in the first place can be a completely different story.
“Getting licenses from different companies in England and Scotland – it can be incredibly expensive and time consuming,” Reese said. “So there is a big challenge to enter the industry in the first place.”
There were also other reasons to consider. “You get storm events, you might find years where it doesn’t grow particularly well, nutrition fluctuations,” he said.
There was innovation on the horizon, Reese noted, but “it would take a few years to get there where we see that kind of optimization for real scalability.”
The UK’s interest in cultivating and collecting seaweed is not limited to the work planned in and around Oban.
In the picturesque county of Cornwall in the south-west of England, the Cornish Sweed Company has been harvesting crops since 2012, giving a glimpse of how the vast industry could develop in the years ahead.
Tim Van Berkel, co-founder and managing director of the company, told CNBC that the seaweed is a wild-harvested seaweed for food purposes.
In 2017, the business complemented this coastal-based harvest when it began cultivating seaweed from spores on the site of an existing oyster farm near the Cornish fishing village of Porthallow.
“They grow on the line hanging in the water, really like boys,” said Van Berkel. “It’s similar to oyster farming.” The business was cultivating two types of seaweed at the site, says Van Berkel: Sugar Kelp and Alaria.
Despite establishing the site in Porthalo, the company’s main focus right now is on its coast-based harvesting. “It’s really still the core business,” said Van Berkel. “There are five, six, other seaweed that we collect … from the wild, from the coast, which runs all year round.”
Other companies that want to make their mark include SeaGrown, located in the coastal town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, and is working on setting up a seaweed farm in the North Sea.
Further north, the activities of Sweed Farming Scotland are located in Oban and focus on the cultivation of native species in the waters there.
An aerial view of people working on a seaweed farm in Zhejiang Province, China, on November 24, 2021.
Jiang Yuqing | Visual China Group | Getty Images
In 2020, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations described seaweed cultivation as being “influenced by the countries of East and Southeast Asia.”
The industry is big business, the FAO noted separately that the seaweed sector generated প্রথম 14.7 billion in 2019 “first-selling value”.
The UK’s commercial marine algae sector is still in its infancy, with a way to do it before it can compete on the global stage.
While seaweed cultivation in Asia can often be large in size, the sites are spread over a considerable area, as shown in the picture above of a farm in Zhejiang Province, China.
The United States also has a seaweed farming sector, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reporting that there are now “dozens of farms” in the waters of New England, Alaska and the Northwest Pacific.
As well as commercial products, there are other benefits to cultivating seaweed, one of which is that it does not require pure water.
For its part, the NOAA states that “seaweeds are incredibly efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide and using it to grow.” In addition, it mentions that “seaweed also boils nitrogen and phosphorus.”
Although there are permitting concerns in some parts of the United States, the industry has expanded there in recent years, with NOAA calling it a “fast-growing aquatic sector.”
It adds that in 2019 Alaska-based farmers produced more than 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbons and bull kelp. “This is a 200 percent increase over the state’s first commercial crop in 2017,” it says
Globally, the industry seems to be expanding rapidly over the last two decades or so. The FAO report states that global marine macroalgae – another name for marine algae – increased production from 10.6 million metric tons in 2000 to 32.4 million metric tons in 2018.
It’s not all plain sailing, however. The FAO report states, “Global production of farmed aquatic algae, dominated by seaweed, has grown comparatively less in recent years, and even declined by 0.7 percent in 2018,” the FAO report states.
Aerial view of a site used for marine algae cultivation in the waters near the sands of Indonesia.
Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk | Istok | Getty Images
And while there seem to be a lot of products and benefits associated with seaweed farming, there are also issues that those working in the industry need to address and move forward with caution.
For example, the World Wildlife Fund notes that, in some cases, marine algae species have become “aggressive when they grow beyond their natural limits.”
The WWF also referred to the “protected species entanglement with seaweed farm rope structure” as a “potential concern” but added that such an event was unlikely and that there had been “no credible documented marine entanglement” in 40 years.
Back in Scotland, Reese of the Swedish Academy is optimistic about the future. “I think we’re really ready to see growth,” he said. “I just hope the hype isn’t hype for the wrong reason.”
“And as long as we all … work together to get the message across with the support of the government and investors and to get the training and development right, we will see something that is truly beneficial, truly sustainable for the world.”