Food is one of humanity’s most basic needs, and supplying the world’s almost 8 billion people with enough nutrients to survive is a central global concern. In 2020, the United Nations Global Compact (the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative) chose Seaweed Day, June 4, to release their Seaweed Manifesto, a detailed look at the revolutionary possibilities of this amazing sea vegetable. Compiled by private companies, research institutions, UN agencies and civil society, the manifesto is all about how seaweed can literally save the world. It explores the potential role of seaweed in fighting food scarcity, mitigating climate change, cutting marine pollution and helping to achieve the UN’s goal of Zero Hunger.
You might not know it when enjoying our snacks, but that humble dried green square has the potential to feed continents and fight climate change dramatically. The possible benefits of increasing seaweed production are truly profound, from generating earth-friendly bio-fuel and biodegradable packaging to supporting marine ecosystems and alleviating poverty. Here’s a taste of the radical yet significant ways that algaes like seaweed just might be the most important plant of the future.
A universal food source. One of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, seaweed is not just for feeding humans, but also land animals, farmed fish and crustaceans. (Farming just 2% of the ocean would provide enough protein to feed 12 million people, according to experts.) Farmers have used the marine algae as a feed supplement for livestock and aquaculture for ages, recognizing it as a valuable source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients for humans and animals alike. But there’s another unexpected benefit as well. Not only has it proven to increase the immunity and overall health of animals, but preliminary research has found that adding a small amount of seaweed to cattle feed can reduce methane emissions by as much as 80%.
The ultimate green crop. Known as a “zero-input food,” seaweed requires no additional fresh water, fertilizer, pesticides, feed or land to flourish. Growing at a rate up to 30x faster than land-based vegetables, it absorbs carbon dioxide and turns it into seaweed biomass in a process called carbon sequestration. Seaweeds also reduce pollution by absorbing excess chemicals and heavy metals from the water, helping to mitigate ocean acidification. They play a vital role in underwater ecosystems, helping to increase marine biodiversity by providing food and shelter for fish and other marine organisms.
Better resource use. The scale of possibility is immense: oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface, but currently contribute only 2% to the world’s food supply, calorie-wise. Even a small increase in algae production could make a huge impact in reducing demand for terrestrial crops (and related greenhouse gas emissions). One recent study found that substituting just 10 percent of human diets with seaweed products could reduce the amount of land needed for agricultural purposes by 110 million hectares of land–an area twice the size of France.
Economic common sense. Already farmed in over 55 countries, seaweed is an untapped source of revenue for economically fragile coastal communities. Seaweed farms are something of a miracle: growing methods are simple, the required equipment is cheap, and crops thrive in every type and temperature of water. A growing seaweed industry can diversify local economies and revitalize small coastal towns, creating jobs by providing an economic alternative in areas struggling with depleted fish stocks.
It’s literally the future. Most farmed seaweed is used for food, but its reach extends far beyond the kitchen. Today, algae extracts are found in everything from toothpaste and cosmetics to pet food and gardening products. It’s also an amazing organic fertilizer. Unlike chemical fertilizers, seaweed-based options are non-toxic and sustainable, packed with complex carbohydrates and essential micronutrients and minerals that help to improve soil quality and stimulate growth in plants. From medicinal applications to replacing single-use plastics, seaweed innovations have incredible potential that we’re just beginning to understand.
So, every June 4th, we joyfully celebrate this unassuming green superhero. The simple truth is, what we do matters, collectively and individually. Like a pebble thrown in a pond, small personal choices ripple outward to create a powerful effect in the larger world. Thank you for joining the seaweed revolution!