Like many coastal communities around the world, people living by the sea in the United Kingdom have harvested and consumed seaweed for centuries.

In Wales, Welsh pita bread – made from seaweed called laurel – is a culinary delicacy so revered that it has the status of a protected designation of origin.

The use of seaweed also does not end at the dinner table: today they are found in everything from cosmetics and feed to gardening and packaging.

With concerns about the environment, food security and climate change, this moist, edible sea treasure – of which there are many varieties and colors – can play an important role in the sustainable future of our planet, and the UK wants in on the act.

Towards the end of April, the project, called “the first specialized seaweed company” in the UK, officially opened, and participants hope it will help start the commercialization of a sector that has proven itself in other parts of the world.

The Seaweed Academy is known to be located near the Scottish city of Oban. Funding for the project of £ 407,000 (about $ 495,300) was provided by the UK government.

It will be managed by the Scottish Marine Science Association in partnership with its trading subsidiary SAMS Enterprise and UHI Argyll.

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According to SAMS, one of the aims of the academy is to stimulate “the growth of aquaculture in the UK”. In addition, the project will seek to explore “high value markets” and use research to increase the competitiveness of UK products worldwide.

Rihanna Reese is a seaweed researcher and coordinator of the Seaweed Academy at SAMS Enterprise. In a recent interview with CNBC, she gave an idea of ​​the types of jobs that were performed on the seaweed farm.

“It’s much less industrial than it may seem,” she said. “When you think of agriculture, you think of great machinery, you think of mechanical harvesting, and that’s not at all what seaweed cultivation has to do with.”

“If you look at it from the outside, all you can see is buoys in the water, and then underwater these long lines of rope with … huge tracts of seaweed,” she continued to explain.

“If you want to harvest, you come in, take the rope and pull it into the boat – and that’s basically it,” she said.

The seeming simplicity of the process is one thing, but setting up a farm can be a whole other story.

“Getting licenses from … different organizations in England and Scotland can be incredibly expensive and time consuming,” Reese said. “So, first of all, there are serious problems in the industry.”

Other factors had to be considered. “You get thunderstorms, you get maybe years when it doesn’t grow particularly well, fluctuations in nutrients,” she said.

There were innovations on the horizon, Reese noted, but “it takes several years to get to the area where we see the kind of optimization that is needed for real scalability.”

Cross

The UK’s interest in growing and collecting seaweed is not limited to the work planned in and around Abana.

In the picturesque county of Cornwall on the south-western tip of England, the Cornish Seaweed Company has been harvesting since 2012, giving an insight into how the wider industry could develop in the coming years.

Tim van Berkel, who co-founded the company and is its managing director, told CNBC that the firm extracted seaweed from the shores for food purposes.

In 2017, the company supplemented its harvest on the shores when it began growing seaweed from a dispute at the site of an existing mussel farm in the waters near Porthall, the fishing village of Cornwall.

“They grow on lines hanging in the water, like buoys,” said van Berkel, adding that “it’s like growing mussels.” According to van Berkel, the company grew two types of seaweed: sugar kelp and alaria.

Despite the establishment of a site in Porthalow, the company’s main focus at the moment is on offshore mining. “It’s still the main thing,” said van Berkel. “There are five, six, other algae that we harvest … from the wild, from shores that last all year.”

Other companies looking to make their mark are SeaGrown, based in the coastal town of Scarborough, Yorkshire, and working to build a seaweed farm in the North Sea.

Further north the Seaweed Farming Scotland businesses are located in Obana and focus on growing species that come from the waters there.

The global picture

Aerial view of people working on a seaweed farm in Zhejiang Province, China, 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 that the cultivation of seaweed “dominates in East and Southeast Asia.”

The industry is big business, with the FAO noting that in 2019, the seaweed sector generated $ 14.7 billion in “first-time sales”.

As the commercial seaweed sector in the UK is still in its early stages, it needs to go a long way before it will perform on the world stage.

Seaweed cultivation in Asia can often be large-scale, with plots located over fairly large areas, as shown in the photo above a farm in Zhejiang Province, China.

The United States is also home to seaweed, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there are now “dozens of farms” in New England, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Along with commercial products derived from seaweed cultivation, there are other benefits, the obvious of which does not require fresh water.

For its part, NOAA says “seaweed is incredibly effective at absorbing carbon dioxide and using it for growth.” It is also noted that “seaweed also absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Although there are concerns about permission in some parts of the United States, the industry there has expanded in recent years, with the NOAA calling it “the fastest growing aquaculture sector.”

It adds that in 2019, farmers in Alaska produced more than 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbon and kelp. “That’s 200 percent more than the state’s first commercial harvest in 2017,” it said.

Worldwide the industry seems to have been on a rapid expansion path for the last two decades or so. The FAO report says that global production of marine macroalgae – another name for seaweed – has grown from 10.6 million metric tons in 2000 to 32.4 million tons in 2018.

However, not everything was easy. “Global seaweed-dominated production of algae has grown relatively low in recent years and even declined by 0.7 percent in 2018,” the FAO report said.

Aerial view of a site used for growing seaweed in waters near Bali, Indonesia.

Sassithorn Phuapankasemsuk | Source | Getty Images

And while there seem to be many products and benefits associated with seaweed cultivation, those working in the industry will need to decide and manage carefully in the future.

The World Wildlife Fund, for example, notes that in some cases, seaweed species become “invasive when grown outside their natural range.”

WWF also calls the “potential concern” “the interweaving of protected species with rope structures made of seaweed”, but adds that such a phenomenon is unlikely and “no clear documented marine confusion” has occurred in 40 years.

Returning to Scotland, Rice from the Seaweed Academy is optimistic about the future. “I think we’re really ready to see growth,” she said. “I just hope the hype isn’t hectic for the wrong reasons.”

“And as long as we all … work together to get the message across, be trained and properly developed, along with the support of governments and investors, we will see something that is really good for the world, really sustainable.”

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