Hero of the Month: Seaweed

“Extrapolations”, Apple TV+ ©

2068 – Two couples sit in a living room politely conversing. A maid serves them a luxurious glass of bubbly while waiting for dinner. The girl of the second couple (decidedly younger than the other three people present) exclaims that it tastes strange. Her hostess (Marion Cotillard) replies that its taste is true of the terroir (Napa Valley, apparently). Following this, she tells her: “Well, you’ve probably never had anything to eat or drink that wasn’t made out of kelp.”

This scene is part of the seventh episode of Extrapolations (Apple TV), a television series that chronicles “eight interconnected stories, over the course of 33 years, (that) explore how our planet’s changing climate will affect family, work, faith-and survival.” The series is, of course, fiction, but it’s a big-budget Hollywood projection of the coming decades, deeply influenced by powerful and important scientific research.

As the years pass, 2037, 2046, 2059, etc., the characters are impacted in different ways, some comprehensible, some bizarre, many unexpected and frequently dramatic. Here, in 2068, they would have us imagine that a 20/30 year old will never have eaten anything other than seaweed.

In this article – the first in a SuperNaturale series entitled ‘Hero of the Month’ – we will try to illustrate why kelp is cited in this depressing portrait of a semi-fantastical future. These publications are love letters to heroes: products, species, things that are all-round champions in the fight against climate change.

This long preamble to say that this month, our ‘hero’ is seaweed.

Photo by Lauren Probyn, via Unsplash. 

To start with the most alarming aspect, namely, the hypothesis that one day humans will only be able to feed themselves with algae. This scenario is related to the characteristics of seaweed that allow it to grow in different ways than conventional terrestrial crops.

Globally, several planetary boundaries – a term that describes the limits of the Earth system within which humanity can continue to develop and prosper for generations to come, but beyond which the environment loses regularity and becomes unstable – are threatened by human activity. In particular, the loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution, soil fertility and freshwater availability are four key indicators seriously threatened by the climate crisis. These factors will force us to completely disrupt and rethink the global food production system. Simply put, in the future it may be very difficult to grow and harvest food in the conventional way that is done today, every day, all over the world.

A potential solution lies in our oceans – in growing food in water. Seaweed, unlike terrestrial plantations, does not need fresh or ‘new’ water or fertiliser to grow. The growth of wild seaweed, as of human-cultivated seaweed (which seems more relevant to this discussion), is not dependent on the availability of fertile soil or the logics of normal agriculture. It is not threatened by floods, droughts, wildfires, hail (or even construction and development) like terrestrial crops. Nor is there the problem of space: 70 per cent of the planet is covered with water (compared to 37 per cent of the earth’s surface dedicated to agriculture).

GreenWave ©

Seaweed is a hyper-efficient grower – almost half a metre a day under the right conditions – and is a simple crop to manage, without, as explained, using scarce or expensive resources. Indeed, it’s considered a major player in the global response to food shortages, and each year millions are invested in R&D to cultivate seaweed on a large scale. Faced with the ecological uncertainties of the future, seaweed holds enormous promise.

Atlantic Sea Farms ©

But algae offers more than one advantage. First and foremost, taste.

As a foodstuff, the taste of seaweed is fresh, umami, rich, satisfying and, amongst the many different (edible) species, quite unique. Just as we refer to the ‘terroir’ of wine, seaweed farmers often refer to the ‘marroir’, i.e. the flavour characteristics that different seasons, waters, currents etc. can impart to seaweed.

We Europeans have lagged behind. Seaweed has been integrated into the cuisine of many cultures, the most famous being Japan, for thousands of years, without any threat of climate change. And in many of them it is considered a delicacy. While continental consumption is increasing (both in food service and through commercial products), we have yet to discover the many true pleasures of eating and cooking with seaweed.  Some of these were demonstrated just a few weeks ago to an enthusiastic audience at the Tuorlo event held in Milan on the Future of Nutrition; here Michelin-starred chef Chiara Pavan prepared Cristina Garcia’s aka La Patrona wild Galician seaweeds in several delicious dishes. (They were also infused into a cocktail). An aspect much more promising therefore, than alarming.

Chef Chiara Pavan at the Tuorlo event 15/05/23. Photo by Camilla Zaccheo. 

A seaweed antipasto. Photo by Camilla Zaccheo.

Cristina Garcia, AKA La Patrona – harvester (and taster) of seaweed.

Secondly, seaweeds are not just tasty – they’re also superfoods.

They’re ‘hyper-functional’, rich in fibre, minerals, and vitamins (iodine, potassium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, calcium) (A, B1, B2, B9, B12, C and E). More interestingly, they are rich in Omega 3, an essential fatty acid, which, to get your fill, one is said to have to eat oily fish. But seaweed also provides this important nutrient. In fact, most don’t realise that fish themselves are rich in Omega 3 thanks to their own seaweed-rich diet. Seaweed is not only a healthy alternative to fish due its lower fat, sugar, or higher vitamin content, but also due to its much lower concentration of mercury and pollutants – lying further down the food chain, seaweeds don’t accumulate toxins. In addition, they provide improvements in intestinal well-being, bone strength and are suitable for diabetics, vegans, coeliacs and the cholesterol-conscious. It can thus come as no surprise that the longevity of the Japanese is in part scientifically attributed to a diet rich in seaweed.

Dish by E/N, Milan enoteca. 

Dish by Erbavoglio, restaurant in Modena.

To now turn to the benefits of seaweed for the environment:

Seaweed plays a critical role as a so-called ‘ecosystem engineer’ in sustaining marine environments and their biodiversity. They oxygenate and clean waters by removing tons of nitrogen and phosphate; they work against water warming and temperature changes; they are a weapon against coastal erosion; they dampen wave energy and reduce sun levels, thus protecting flora and fauna; and they provide a protective, nutrient-dense habitat for marine plants and animals, perfect for mating and raising juveniles. The list of their environmental services is almost endless – they’re beneficial, not just for us, but for our lakes, seas, oceans and all the creatures that live in them. This is why marine reforestation (or ‘rewilding’) – planting seaweed – is rapidly growing and being promoted as an effective, multifaceted environmental project.

Photo by J Cruikshank, via Unsplash. 

Photo by Mae Moesland, via Unsplash. 

There is also a lot of talk about seaweed and CO2: the fact that seaweed is a ‘carbon sink’ and the co-benefits for tackling climate change of cultivating seaweed (both for food and non-food uses). In reality, the science here is still unclear (both in the sense of durable uptake and scalability). But research on carbon sequestration by algae is receiving significant investment. One of the most innovative examples of this science is that of Brilliant Planet, a company that seeks to permanently sequester CO2 from the atmosphere by burying blocks of microalgae in the desert.

Brilliant Planet ©

However, what is certain is their potential for reducing carbon emissions when used as an alternative to more polluting resources or products.

For example, seaweed biomass turned into biofuel could one day directly replace fossil fuels. Seaweed is an excellent natural fertiliser – it can substitute chemical alternatives or those with higher environmental and carbon footprints. Entire food and feed production systems with much higher footprints could be replaced with algae-based food systems. Seaweed can be harvested or grown to produce biodegradable and combustible ‘plastics’, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals… the list here really is endless – and still developing. And, as described, seaweed is considered one of the most important components of diets of the future and a crucial resource against food shortages. One can therefore see why the potential of this humble species is, today, so significant – the positive environmental impact that its use and consumption could provide for so many sectors is inestimably great. And here, perhaps, lies the true super-heroic power of seaweed.

Photo by Marcel Viraugh, via Unsplash.

Photo by Simone van der Koelen, via Unsplash.

Photo by Daniel Fazio, via Unsplash. 

The purpose of this article is not to explain why Extrapolations represents a realistic scenario. Rather, hopefully it does not.

Seaweeds are not a ‘solution crop’ for a climate apocalypse (just as no other species is in the world). They too will be afflicted, mainly by ocean pollution, ocean acidification, disruption of natural cycles and extreme storms. Although algae probably remains the least threatened singular crop, humans should strive for nutritional diversity. And we hope to maintain a planet capable of feeding its population in increasingly sustainable, equitable and delicious ways.

However, we hope that by spotlighting our hero, we can grow curiousity, stimulate investment and encourage consumption of the multifaceted and wonderful seaweed.