Fun Fact: Beyond Being Delicious, Seaweed Can Help Us Fight Climate Change
When Bren Smith started cultivating seaweed 15 years ago, he was "laughed off the dock" by fellow fishermen.
Smith kept his head down. He'd seen the effects of overfishing firsthand after years of catching cod in the Bering Sea, and he knew that this way of working with the ocean made more sense in the age of climate change. It paid off: These days, traditional fisherman aren't coming to him looking for a chuckle—they're coming for advice.
Smith has since founded GreenWave: a non-profit organization dedicated to replicating their 3D Ocean Farming model that grows seaweed and other restorative species like oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops vertically using the entire water column. Farming seaweed is typically a more sustainable approach than wild harvesting it, which can lead to the clear-cutting of valuable ecosystems.
When I caught up with Smith, he was on the last leg of a book tour for his memoir Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer and had just appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio's latest documentary, Ice on Fire. The newfound fandom speaks to the times: Now that we can all agree that traditional farming techniques are depleting our land, innovative, sustainable ways to harvest the sea are more in-demand than ever.
Why the world could use some more seaweed.
"If you ask the ocean what to grow, it says to grow things you don't have to feed and don't swim away," Smith says of his decision to start his first farm. Right away, he saw a special promise in harvesting seaweed in particular. "Seaweed is this incredible technology of Mother Nature that can feed the planet but also restore our seas in the climate crisis."
We need to be breathing life into the climate and not just lowering our footprint.
The benefits of growing seaweed are manifold. For starters, it's easy and cheap to farm. "Seaweed is a zero-input food. It's so affordable to grow because we don't have to feed it, we don't have to water it, we don't have to fertilize it," he says. "It's such a simple, elegant crop. All you really need [to grow it] is water, ropes, and buoys."
The sea veggie also acts as a filter of sorts, cleaning the waters that surround it. It's been found to capture more carbon than all other marine plants combined and can sequester other pollutants like excess phosphorous and nitrogen from wastewater, industrial runoff, or fish farms, too. In the age of global warming, seaweed farms can also serve as artificial reefs and provide storm protection. "Sustainability is great, but fundamentally it's not making a harmful thing better," Smith says, likening seaweed production to the regenerative agriculture movement that's starting to take off on land. "We need to be breathing life into the climate and not just lowering our footprint."
As demand for seaweed soars, it's becoming increasingly lucrative to grow. Once a niche product in America, relegated to high-end restaurants and sushi joints, seaweed is now an in-demand sustainable protein among institutional cafeterias like Google, Facebook, and college campuses, places that are "trying to entice and keep talent with delicious food," Smith explains. Packed with vitamins and omega-3 fats, most varieties are healthy, to boot. Legendary functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, M.D., has even gone so far as to dub seaweed the "new kale."
Barnacle Superfoods and Blue Evolution are two companies selling farm-raised seaweed to consumers, and earlier this year, AKUA, a line of kelp jerky, hit the market as a new, convenient way to enjoy the healthy ingredient. "Our mission is for AKUA to be a household name for sustainable seaweed-based products, and to use our brand as a platform to raise awareness around issues like food sustainability, ocean health, and climate change," founder Courtney Boyd Myers told mbg around the product's launch.
More than just a salty snack.
Seaweed's potential extends far beyond our plates. Researchers in California are experimenting with using it as feed for farm animals since it appears to kick off a fermentation process in cows' stomachs that reduces the amount of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, the animal releases into the atmosphere during the digestion process. Cows burp once a minute on average, and in California alone, they emit 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year, as much as 2.5 million cars, according to a report out of Yale. Seaweed might be able to reduce that by up to 30 to 50%.
Our farms can create the packaging of the future.
A longtime staple on the beauty scene, seaweed is also making its way into the fashion world. Lifestyle brand Everyday California now sells a T-shirt made of an algae-cellulose blend (and donates a percentage of portions to Smith's non-profit) while PANGAIA, a clothing company that experiments with biomaterials, makes a shirt that's 80% cotton, 20% seaweed. Once the seaweed is harvested from the farm, the company dries it, crushes it into a fine powder, and processes it into a completely biodegradable fiber. "The resulting seaweed fiber is soft and supple, meaning that the resulting material is lightweight," Amanda Parkes, Ph.D., the company's COO, explains. "As we refine our fiber, we are working on increasing the percent of seaweed in the T-shirt."
The raw material might even hold potential as an alternative to plastic packaging, as evidenced by this year's London Marathon, where thirsty runners were given water bottles made of seaweed instead of plastic. "Our farms can create the packaging of the future," says Smith. "It's this multi-use, multifaceted thing."
Farming for a better future.
So what does a seaweed-soaked future look like? As of 2015, eight Asian nations produced 99% of the world's supply, and Smith is working to spread out the market. To date, GreenWave has trained and supported over 50 farmers and entrepreneurs. The goal is to eventually create clusters of 50 or so farms in a single coastal area—all centered around one on-land processing center. This would ensure no one area is over-harvested and support job creation and community development. (The World Bank has already identified seaweed farming as a promising source of income generation, especially in developing countries.) "We want 500 farms in five years in 10 regions," he says. "We think that will really jump-start the industry and bring it to a whole other level."
Smith's vision won't take shape overnight, though, as on-land processing infrastructure is expensive, and unpredictable ocean conditions due to climate change threaten crop security. But, he says, he's confident that the next generation of ocean farmers is up for the challenge.
"I see a coalition of former fisherman, women, and First Nation communities as the leaders of this transition," he says. GreenWave has noticed that women are largely leading the restorative ocean farming industry and Native people are also farming to restore local waters at a fast clip.
Here's to this next generation of farmers, who are cultivating so much more than just healthy food.