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how eating seaweed could help the planet

how eating seaweed could help the planet

March 29
20:30 2018

Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire, Wales. A strong wind is whipping sea foam over black rocks that jut from the drenched beach. Jonathan Williams strides between them, dipping up and down to gather treasure until he is just a dot of bright blue puffa jacket where the sea meets the sky. He looks like a modern-day pirate. But Williams’ bounty is seaweed. And it is in big demand.

“We are rushed off our feet,” he says of his business The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, which sells seaweed food products. “I’m having to turn down offers. We’ve had inquiries from huge, famous food companies. They want to use seaweed to up the nutritional value of their products and lower their salt content. Seaweed suddenly seems like the answer to everyone’s problems.”

Rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and essential fatty acids, seaweed is popping up on menus and supermarket shelves, touted as the latest trendy superfood. In 2010, when his business began, Williams was simply touring farmers’ markets and festivals, selling handmade flatbreads stuffed with seaweed fillings or “lobster rolls with seaweed butter, chips, salad and seaweed flakes in the mayo”. Today, he also supplies about 250 shops across the UK with everything from seaweed rum and stout to “Mermaid Confetti”, a mix of salt and seaweed.

Fashion and nutrition aside, however, could there be an ethical imperative for us to eat it? There are 7.3 billion of us on the planet today.That is likely to rise to 9.8 billion hungry mouths by 2050 and, put simply, our current model of food production is not cutting it. About 90 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are already seriously depleted. We are losing 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil each year due to intensive farming.

Launched at the end of 2016, the Science Advice for Policy from European Academies (SAPEA) is a consortium involving more than 100 European science academies, established to provide evidence-based advice to the European Commission on major policy issues. Its first report, “Food from the Oceans”, was published at the end of last year. “We have to find new ways,” the report says, “to feed a fast-growing global population.”

Cooking seaweed © Sebastián Bruno

One answer? “The oceans are home to a large number of resources that are either not exploited or are marginally exploited currently,” write the authors. Of all these, they argue, seaweed could be the biggest game changer.

Situated at the bottom of the underwater food chain, seaweed and other species of algae need only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to grow. Compared with salmon, which feed off smaller fish, which in turn feed off algae, seaweed is a less energy-intensive source of nutrition.

Plus, unlike the little fish needed to fatten our salmon, or indeed the feed required by a cow, all the ingredients needed to sustain algae are in abundant, free supply in the ocean.

All except for sunlight. Many species of algae grow naturally in the shallows, where they can get enough light for photosynthesis. For hundreds of years, the seaweed has then been harvested by hand on the shoreline at low tide.

“There was a time when this beach would have been swarming with women, all collecting seaweed from the rocks and sending it to the city to be boiled up,” Williams tells me, pausing from his own picking to gaze up at the Pembrokeshire shoreline. “Historically, seaweed was a huge part of the Welsh diet. But now it’s just me and the odd Swansea boy down here. The tradition’s pretty much died out.

“A couple of us try to go out daily,” he adds. “We pick lava, kelp, dulse, wrack and gutweed by hand off the rocks.” There is, however, a problem with this traditional method of harvesting seaweed: it’s slow.

“If we’ve got big orders and we’re getting behind, I’ll have to rope in friends and family to come down to the beach and pick,” he says. “Sometimes, I pay them back by cooking for them.” Once picked, the harvested seaweed must be dried and flaked. “[We wash] it several times to get rid of the grit. Then it goes into the dehydrator — a massive silver box about as tall as a man — for up to 14 hours.”

Seaweed on the shoreline © Sebastián Bruno

It would be hard, in other words, to fix the world’s food problems through this artisanal approach. But, says Dag Aksnes, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Bergen who co-chairs the working group behind SAPEA’s report, only a fraction of the seaweed eaten last year was harvested in this way. “The vast majority was farmed.” Most of this was in Asia. In 2014, China alone produced 12.8 million tonnes of farmed seaweed, about 80 per cent of it destined for human consumption. More than 500 sq km of the region’s Yellow Sea is devoted to seaweed farms. Grids of floating ropes allow for large-scale cultivation almost anywhere in the uppermost metres of the ocean, turning the water into three-dimensional fields of food.

It is, as Aksnes points out, big business. Globally, the farming of algae is the fastest-growing food production industry in our oceans. Its crop is valued at around $5bn and largely sold and consumed in Asia.

But it could also have a real and positive impact on climate change. In 2012, research led by Antoine De Ramon N’Yeurt at the University of the South Pacific suggested that converting 9 per cent of the world’s oceans into seaweed farms would capture 19 gigatonnes of CO2 a year (by way of context, humanity’s net emissions have been estimated at about 37 gigatonnes).

That would help to redress the acidification of waters associated with climate change, which would in turn improve conditions for shellfish. In fact, SAPEA’s report suggests that cultivated seaweed plots rapidly attract biodiversity, including a large number of fish species.

For all those reasons, the report states: “The potential for providing large quantities of food and biomass from macroalgae mariculture is much larger than for any other group of marine organisms.” Seaweed, it seems, is the future.

In Europe, though, serious stumbling blocks remain, “the biggest of which,” says Aksnes, “is do people like the taste of it? There are [also] concerns about levels of heavy metals in seaweed and there is the problem of securing enough space in the water. Not everyone in Europe wants these seaweed gardens taking up their coastal areas.”

Seaweed can absorb heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, that can lurk in some parts of the sea. Grown in polluted waters, it could potentially soak up enough to cause health problems to those who end up eating it.

Yet perhaps more dangerous to the success of seaweed farms in Europe is nimbyism. Though they lie predominantly below the surface, significantly less visible than a wind farm, a seaweed farm near your Cornish coastal retreat would at the very least interfere with your surfing sessions.

“It’s a problem,” admits Arne Duinker of Norway’s National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research. A scientist with a passion for foraging and cooking wild food, he led public discussions in both Bergen and Cardiff after the report’s release last year, entitled “The Rediscovery of Seaweeds as Food”.

“In Europe, we’re competing for space with other activities and interests, like people’s holiday homes,” he explains. As seaweed farming technology develops, though, he is confident that any clashes can be resolved. “In the North Sea, they are talking about farming kelp between wind turbines,” he says.

Hattie Garlick and Jonathan Williams foraging for and tasting seaweed © Sebastián Bruno

When it comes to taste, he is even more optimistic. “I work with chefs a lot now, and they tell me it’s like discovering a new dimension of taste,” he enthuses. “Because seaweed is a source of umami — that rich, salty taste . . . Often you can include seaweed in a recipe and you don’t know it’s there, you just taste everything around it more intensely.”

Personally, he likes to “fry kelp chips in a little oil. You get this crunchy, crisp taste. Pair that with some fried fish, and you’ve got a complete meal. Or you can extract its taste in oil. Sea lettuce oil, for example, makes an amazing mayonnaise. Put that on lobster and . . . wow.”

Indeed, chefs seem to be flocking to seaweed like seagulls to chips. René Redzepi, chef at the world-renowned restaurant Noma, has described it as “one of the few untapped natural resources we’ve yet to really start eating”. When he reopened the restaurant on a new site this February, kelp ice cream was on the menu.

British restaurateur, chef and food writer Mark Hix, however, shrugs at the ingredient’s sudden superhero status. “It’s not really a new fad,” he says, stirring a pan of spelt, shallots and seaweed.

Hix has invited me to his central London home to cook a seaweed risotto. Modern art by famous names hangs from the walls, dance music pumps from the stereo and a stock made from kombu seaweed, onion and black pepper bubbles on the stove.

“Historically, it would have been a really natural food to eat,” he explains. “Back when we weren’t farming a huge variety of different vegetables, foraged seaweed would have been a great source of free food and nutrition.”

In his bathroom, a net bag of seaweed hangs over the side of a freestanding tub. He has been using the algae in the kitchen for more than a decade, even penning an ode, in his 2006 book British Regional Food, to the Welsh tradition of boiling it into a sloppy consistency called laverbread.

Today, at the Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, Dorset, “we’ll serve it with a bacon chop, or as a garnish for fish. Or we’ll serve deep-fried egg wrack [seaweed] as a snack . . . But seaweed takes on all the different minerals and tastes of its environment, so we’ll also make it the main ingredient in a vegetarian dish, like this . . . ”

He spoons the risotto into bowls and hands one to me. It is incomprehensibly rich and complex for something so simple. “That’s what we’re all about,” says Hix. “But I can see seaweed really taking off in lots of new ways now. They’ll be making it into drinks and all sorts.”

Back in Pembrokeshire, Jonathan Williams had a similar view. “Whether it’s Michelin-starred chefs or ready meals . . . as pressure for space on land increases, I can really see how seaweed could play a big part in our diets,” he says, as he fries up cockles, bacon and laverbread over a fire in the sand dunes.

© Sebastián Bruno

“The UK has the world’s second-biggest tidal range — there’s so much potential for seaweed harvesting here,” he says, tipping the pan’s contents into a crusty bread roll. “But, personally, I want to slow right down and really push for more research. I remember visiting this beautiful part of Scotland where there was this plaque on the wall, charting the terrible depletion of their salmon stocks.”

SAPEA’s report concludes that small-scale hand-picking of wild seaweed is generally regarded as sustainable. Attempts to mechanise the harvesting on a bigger scale have been less successful. The report says “[it would be] costly, unselective, and prone to contaminate native stocks”.

Then, there is the processing problem. Seaweed may be a nutritional powerhouse but, explains Patricia Harvey, professor of biochemistry and head of bioenergy research at the University of Greenwich, we don’t yet know the degree to which humans can digest it, in no small part because of algae’s cellulose content.

She says that is why it must be “washed and then dried, cooked or steamed . . . Any treatment to help to loosen or break down the cell wall, so that our digestive system can access the proteins, vitamins, minerals and essential fats.”

We need more research and funding for these processing practices, Harvey adds, to better understand their effect and to bring down costs before seaweed can hope to become a credible competitor in the marketplace to, say, soya.

Even then, for seaweed to have a significant impact on global food shortages, we would need to produce far more than we currently do, even on China’s giant farms.

“Every seaweed company in the UK must be soul-searching at the moment,” says Williams. “Because the demand’s certainly there. But I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan. I want to make sure we’re harvesting in a sustainable way. Right now, it’s a labour of love.”

Mark Hix’s seaweed risotto

© Matt Austin

If you can’t find or forage fresh seaweed, then the dried seaweed salad you find in Asian supermarkets makes a good alternative. Serves eight.

4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
60ml rapeseed oil
400g spelt, soaked in cold water for a couple of hours
A litre of hot vegetable stock (or make your own stock from kombu)
150g-160g edible seaweed (sea lettuce, dulse, sea beans etc), blanched in boiling water for a minute and roughly chopped
80g butter
  1. Gently cook the shallots for a few minutes in the rapeseed oil until soft. Add the drained spelt and stir it well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the hot stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition has been fully absorbed by the spelt before adding the next.
  2. After 10 minutes, when the spelt is half-cooked, put in the seaweed and keep adding stock until the spelt is just cooked and plump (the risotto should be quite moist). Then add the butter and correct the seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately.

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