Is Kelp the New Kale, Omega-3 Supplement, Snack, Animal Feed, Bacon – or even Gasoline?

by Carolyn Sotka

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Illustration of Bren Smith’s 3-D ocean farm. Image from GreenWave.org

There is a revolving door in global markets for food fads. Coconut water and related products have become a billion-dollar industry. Kale, in the ‘chip’ form alone, made about two hundred million dollars last year. But there is a new contender that is gaining in popularity, sneaking up on a number of different food products and may turn out to be far more than just a fad – seaweed.

I’ve always been fascinated with seaweed, especially since my husband is an ecologist who studies algae, and I’ve worked with him on several studies, as well as in the aquaculture world. So last week’s article by Dana Goodyear  in The New Yorker was especially interesting

The article laid out the future of seaweed on the American plate – “A New Leaf: Seaweed Could be a Miracle Food—If We Can Figure Out How to Make it Taste Good”. In the article, Goodyear explores all the potential roads to success for the ‘sea vegetable’, especially against the backdrop of seaweed as a carbon negative crop; as a conservation measure to restore seaweed habitat and the thousands of marine species that rely on it, and as a way to mitigate impacts of run-off due to the fantastic ability of seaweed to absorb nitrogen and phosphorus.

Goodyear features Bren Smith – a fisherman turned entrepreneurial ocean farmer, who wants to bring sustainable seaweed and shellfish to a table near you. Smith is a lifelong commercial fisherman, who turned to aquaculture as a way to restore jobs for out of work fishermen, and help hedge against climate change, while creating an environmentally-friendly farm that has zero inputs.

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Kelp harvest. Image from at Thimble Island Ocean Farm.

Thimble Island Ocean Farm, off Stony Creek, Connecticut is the equivalent of 3-acres of ocean surface and 6 feet in depth. Smith’s approach has been a multi-trophic and integrated ocean farm, which means numbers of different species are raised in the same area. In addition to seaweed, Smith also harvests marine invertebrates including mussels, scallops, and clams. His farm is self-sustaining and he told The New Yorker that, “…The farm is a reef for hundreds of species. This is what you want to see. This is good, restorative ocean farming.”

For an in-depth, 2014 Scuttlefish interview with Smith check out: Life in Salt: A Talk with Bren Smith, Owner of Thimble Island Oysters and Long Island Sound’s First Vertical 3D Ocean Farm.

Smith wants others to join him in this venture, and started the non-profit GreenWave  to train fishermen to set up similar ocean farms. He figures that if you have a boat and thirty thousand dollars of start-up, a fisherman could make up to seventy thousand per year.

According to Goodyear’s article, he is also working on not only expanding seaweed aquaculture but also to create a new, sustainable seafood market for it. Analogous to the “Chef’s Collaborative”, his idea is to get chefs on board to sample and test out different recipes using seaweed, and then help promote the ‘crop’.

Check out Smith’s 2013 TedX talk “The Least Deadliest Catch“.

Eating seaweed is certainly not a new concept. Collecting seaweed for food dates back thousands of years and may have contributed to the rise of Homo sapiens because of the nutrient and protein rich qualities and the high presence of iodine and omega-3 fatty acids – super-foods for brain development.  As the article points out, the coastal migration of early Americans was thought to be have been facilitated by a ‘kelp highway’ and availability of this rich food source.

Today, we find algae in the mainstream market somewhat masked in a variety of products – including agars which thicken and emulsify typical household staples like toothpaste, skin and even ice cream. The biggest leap has been snack items like SeaSnax, which saw a 30% increase in sales, last year alone.

Surprisingly, algae is the most expensive item per weight on your local organic food store’s shelf. Here in Charleston, dulse, which has a bacon-flavor when cooked, catch fetch up to sixty dollars a pound. When you figure in algae as a replacement source for omega-3’s, instead of relying on wild caught fish, you are now looking at a billion dollar industry.

Actually farming seaweed, rather than collecting it from the wild, makes up over 50% of global ocean aquaculture. It’s a six billion dollar industry in Asia, which integrates seaweed products from the simplest meals to some of the most expensive dishes on earth.

Perhaps though, the largest benefit of seaweed farming is its potential as a fuel alternative. According to the US Department of Energy, a network of kelp farms totaling an area ½ the size of Maine could grow enough biofuel to replace all of the oil in the US. Now, that is a game changer.

So – what are we waiting for? There is a huge potential for seaweed to play a role in future blue-green economies. It is nutritious; inexpensive; grows incredibly fast; requires zero inputs; is carbon negative and absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus to help avoid oceanic deadzones; and it can be funneled into a huge diversity of products. But like most activities that increase in scale, or in aquaculture speak -intensify – we should tread forward slowly and carefully. Expansion of farms should require that activities remain sustainable regardless of scale and, for example, don’t rely on non-native seaweeds or invertebrates that could alter the health of the local ecosystems. -CS

Read more of Goodyears’s New Yorker article “A New Leaf: Seaweed Could be a Miracle Food—If We Can Figure Out How to Make it Taste Good” and check out The Scuttlefish’s Owen James Burke’s 2014 interview with Smith – Life in Salt: A Talk with Bren Smith, Owner of Thimble Island Oysters and Long Island Sound’s First Vertical 3D Ocean Farm. -CS

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