Marinalg supports responsible seaweed production, which represents a completely sustainable past, present, and future for seaweed farmers and the food industry. Read on to learn about the sustainability of seaweed production from environmental, industrial, sociological, and economic perspectives.

Why is seaweed production good for the environment?

Not only does seaweed production not harm the environment, it actually helps it. Seaweed production doesn’t require soil, fresh water, or the use fertilizer or harmful chemicals. Like other plants, seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, and helps improve water quality by filtering out contents from agricultural runoff that otherwise end up in the ocean and waterways.

Unlike other agricultural practices, seaweed farming does not result in deforestation or displacement of other marine species. In fact, seaweed farms serve as habitats and shelters to marine animals such as fish, shellfish and mollusks, and contribute to increased biodiversity of marine areas. Unlike terrestrial farms where land is cleared and natural vegetation is otherwise modified, displaced or marginalized, seaweed farming occurs in parts of the ocean where wild vegetation would not normally be found.

What is the socioeconomic impact of seaweed farming globally?

As a renewable marine resource, seaweed can be replenished over time by farming, which explains why seaweed production in the Philippines is still providing opportunities for farmers after 45 years. No damage to the environment has been observed over this period, even while the market for seaweed and its derivatives like carrageenan has been growing at 2 to 5% per year. Furthermore, annual global seaweed production is reported to have the potential to create 50 million direct jobs by 2050, while boosting the world’s food supply by 10% and replacing about 1.5% of the fossil fuels used to run vehicles.

In addition to the farmers themselves, many organizations (such as Marinalg), governments and individual companies are involved in initiatives to ensure sustainable seaweed harvesting and support socioeconomic growth. For example, since 1990, CP Kelco, a Marinalg member company, has been working with communities in Zanzibar, Tanzania to create seaweed beds in the Indian Ocean, where seaweed is harvested to produce carrageenan. This collaboration includes educating local citizens on how to create, cultivate and harvest seaweed beds. This has provided women in Zanzibar, who previously had limited or no opportunity for employment, the ability to enter the workforce. Today, approximately 12,000 people in Zanzibar, 70% of whom are women, are seaweed farmers.

How are governments involved in ensuring the sustainability of industrial seaweed use?

Countries with significant seaweed farming capabilities, including Canada, Iceland, Norway and Ireland, have developed strong science-based management plans that have been continually improved as scientific information and understanding of harvesting methods has increased. For example, Norway can demonstrate over 50 years of sustainable seaweed harvesting, and Chile boasts decades of management of sustainable harvesting of a variety of seaweeds.

Seaweed has a proven long history as a sustainable resource for the global population, and seaweed production continues to involve the highest sustainability standards while providing economic opportunities for thousands of farmers and their families. Sustainable practices such as those in the seaweed production industry are critical when looking towards the future which, according the United Nation’s 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, will include increased hunger fueled by climate change. Given such threats of a larger population with less food and a deteriorating environment, organizations like the World Bank have proposed seaweed farming as one of the best solutions for feeding a growing population without adding to carbon emissions or otherwise harming the planet.

How sustainable are the processing methods used for seaweed?

From dried seaweed sheets used for rolling sushi (known as nori) to ingredients such as carrageenan and agar that help thicken and stabilize foods and beverages, seaweed can take on a variety of forms and functions. While there are several uses for seaweed in the food and beverage industry, all the methods using processed seaweed are sustainable.

No harsh solvents or toxic substances are used in harvesting and drying seaweed. Although seaweed requires further processing after drying to render it into an ingredient like carrageenan, this processing is minimal and does not result in any harmful byproducts being released into the environment, or significant changes to the chemical structure of the final product.

Companies that produce carrageenan take great care to recycle or neutralize any alkaline solution that remains at the end of production. In fact, the techniques used to produce carrageenan are similar to those used to produce many other substances that are listed on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and thus permitted in organic food, including agar and alignate.

However, as with any large industry, it is challenging to ensure sustainable practices are being implemented in every step of the supply chain. The food industry understands this, and is therefore committed to having a positive impact on the farming of red seaweed, which is the raw material needed to produce carrageenan.

For example, Cargill, a Marinalg member company, developed the Red Seaweed Promise, a sustainability program intended to conserve the marine environment and enhance the lives of the producers. The program provides training, coaching and tools producers need to adopt environmental and safe production best practices.

Another Marinalg member, International Flavors and Fragrances (formerly DuPont Nutrition & Health), initiated its own Sustainable Seaweed Program to guide seaweed farmers and harvesters towards more sustainable practices.