Published 10 months ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Francesco Ungaro
Seaweed has great potential as a superfood and a building block for products including plastics, fibers and fuel. Expanding seaweed farming could help reduce demand for crops on land and global GHGs from agriculture by up to 2.6B tonnes of CO2e per year.
New research published in Nature Sustainability shows that
expanding global seaweed farming could offer a sustainable alternative to
land-based agricultural expansion and go a long way toward addressing the
planet’s food security, biodiversity loss, and climate-change challenges.
A group of Australian researchers — led by Scott Spillias from the
University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Science,
who collaborated with a research team from the University of Queensland, the
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
(IIASA), CSIRO and the
University of Tasmania — investigated whether seaweed offered a sustainable
alternative to land-based agricultural expansion to meet the world’s growing
need for food and materials. Spillias started this work as part of his IIASA
Young Scientists Summer Program
project when he participated in the program in the summer of 2021.
“Seaweed has great commercial and environmental potential as a nutritious food
and a building block for products including animal feed, plastics, fibers,
diesel and ethanol,” he explains. “Our study found that expanding seaweed
farming could help reduce demand for crops on land and reduce global
agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by up to 2.6 billion tonnes of
CO2-equivalent per year.”
Not only would scaling seaweed farming eliminate emissions associated with
land-based agriculture, kelp — a large, brown species and the largest subgroup
of seaweed — absorbs up to 20x more
per acre than land forests, making it a potential new powerhouse in
regenerative and climate-resilient
Add to that its use already as a nutrient-rich
superfood and a biobased
and increasing supply feels like a win all around.
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The researchers mapped the potential of farming more of the 34 commercially
important seaweed species using the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model
They estimated the environmental benefits of a range of scenarios based on
land-use changes, GHG emissions, water and fertilizer use, and projected changes
in species presence by 2050.
“In one scenario, where we substituted 10 percent of human diets globally with
seaweed products, the development of 110 million hectares of land for farming
could be prevented,” Spillias says. “We also identified millions of available
hectares of ocean within global exclusive economic zones (EEZs) — in other
words, an area of the sea in which a sovereign state has special rights
regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy
— where farming could be developed.”
The largest share of suitable ocean was in the Indonesian EEZ, where up to
114 million hectares is estimated to be suitable for seaweed farming. The
Australian EEZ also shows great potential and species diversity, with at least
22 commercially viable species and an estimated 75 million hectares of ocean
Spillias added that many native species of seaweed in Australian waters had not
yet been studied from a commercial production perspective.
“The way I like to look at this is to think about ancestral versions of everyday
crops — like corn and wheat — which were uninspiring, weedy things,” he notes.
“Through thousands of years of breeding, we have developed the staple crops that
underpin modern societies; and seaweed could very well hold similar potential in
“This study uniquely highlights the need for integrated strategies bringing
together terrestrial and marine ecosystems management to address some of the
mounting problems of global sustainability facing us, as well as to avoid
displacing problems from the land to the ocean, and vice versa,” concludes Petr
Havlík, Interim Director of
the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program.
Case in point: In 2021, the ‘Kelp
lifted a longtime ban on kelp farming off the coast of New York — providing
a valuable economic opportunity for further developing the state’s blue
Sean Barrett, founder of Montauk Seaweed Supply
Company — which transforms Long Island
seaweed into chemical-free fertilizers and biostimulant products — told
Sustainable Brands® that local farmers can now be incentivized to engage
in the industry and begin generating the nitrogen-sequestering and
carbon-capturing aspects of kelp
that the local ecology — and the rest of the
— desperately needs.
“We are on the verge of harnessing kelp and seaweed from the ocean in a way that
will provide nearly infinite resources to populations across the globe and
unleash a regenerative supply of valuable materials that the global community
desperately needs,” Barrett said. “Expect to see exponential growth in the kelp
industry in the coming years to keep up with growing global demand.”
Published Jan 27, 2023 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET