The sea can feed the world

 

The Dutch are using their market-gardening skills to look at what the sea has to offer, writes ISABEL CONWAY

THE IDEA THAT in 2050 the world will have nine billion people to feed and possibly only half of today’s available land on which to grow crops and produce food, is making a group of Dutch scientists very worried.

They are so worried, in fact, that they are developing the world’s first experimental sea farm to grow a variety of sea vegetables, such as sea lettuce and nutritionally valuable seaweeds, and also to develop and harvest new species.

Scientists at Wageningen University, one of Europe’s leading agricultural institutes, are convinced that the predicted serious food shortages – which will be caused by a variety of factors from scarcity of fresh water to climate change, increased urbanisation and pollution – can be offset by using sea farms.

“They could offer a sustainable way of producing food,” says plant research scientist Willem Brandenberg. “You wouldn’t be using fresh water and the protein that some seaweed produces is of an exceptionally high quality.”

With that in mind, the Dutch have just trained the world’s first sea farmer, Julia Wald, to oversee the growing and harvesting of sea vegetables on a pilot farm off southwest Holland’s low lying Zeeland coast. The “fields” will consist of little floating terraces held together by cables. Racks and lines underwater will collect seaweed.

The farm’s main purpose will be to see whether large-scale sea farming could be conducted in the future.

Brandenberg says sea vegetables are an untapped resource that could provide a solution to the world’s worsening food problems in the coming decades.

“On land the possibilities for agricultural expansion are scarce, especially here in Holland,” he says. “The answer lies in the sea. It is a vast underutilised resource.

“Seaweed is very nutritious, and valuable proteins can be extracted and used in other foods. Unlike animal proteins, which require a lot of fresh water [to produce], it needs none. In fact it gives back fresh water as 80 per cent of seaweed is water based.”

To complete the circle on this project will require the construction of a refinery where, after extraction of the valuable proteins, the residue is suitable for bio-ethanol production.

But is all this feasible?

Brandenberg had just eaten some seaweed salad before talking to this reporter and he was planning to have a glass of seaweed-flavoured gin next, but that is not standard fare for most Europeans.

In southeast Asia, generations of people have tucked into seaweed in the hope of reaping rewards of fewer wrinkles, lower cancer and heart disease rates, but sea vegetables would surely need a marketing blitz to gain acceptance among consumers in the west, regardless of the health benefits?

“That is true,” he says. “It’s like everything else, seaweed and its outstanding health benefits and value as a food – perhaps in future on a par with a potato – must be promoted properly for acceptance. Cooks and restaurants have to be brought aboard also.”

Dutch marine biologist Dr Stefan Kraan, the scientific director and co-founder of Ocean Harvest Technology near Tuam Co Galway, is one of the experts involved in research at the pilot farm off the coast of the Netherlands. He says seaweed’s immediate future in aquaculture, biotechnology and biomedicine as well as the bioethanol industry is more exciting.

“Ireland is waking up to the benefits of seaweed and what a valuable resource it is, but whether it will ever really appeal as a daily food stuff to people in western societies is the challenge.

“It may never catch on to the same extent as in east and southeast Asia. But all of us who know the benefits, eat seaweed regularly. I felt a cold coming on this week and I had a bowl of Carrageen to stave it off. We know the remedy works.”

PRIZE CATCH: THE WONDER OF SEAWEED AND SEA VEGETABLES

The use of seaweed and sea vegetables in the Irish diet goes back to pre-historic times. Monastic writings from the fifth and sixth centuries tell of dishes that used seaweed. Carrageen, dulse and sloke are the most common seaweeds still eaten. Carrageen or “Irish moss” found on the rocks around our coast is renowned for combating colds, bronchitis and chronic coughs.

New research shows that it may even block the transmission of the HIV virus as well as sexually transmitted viruses. Demand is now outstripping supply, according to the Irish Seaweed Centre in Co Galway, which helps firms with research and development. It sees a bright future for seaweed production here for use as food or in medical, industrial and other applications.

Long-term inclusion of seaweed or sea kelp in our diet can regulate metabolism and energy, stimulate the immune system, cleanse the blood, maintain healthy cellular function, support gland function, especially the thyroid, calm the digestive tract and protect against bacterial and viral infection.

And if that wasn’t enough to encourage us to switch from occasional sushi nibbling to daily seaweed consumption, we are reminded that sea vegetables are virtually fat free, low calorie and one of the richest sources of minerals and fibre. Their inclusion in our diets can help to build and sustain the broad nutritional balance of vitamins, minerals and vital nutrients, even halt the ageing process, according to the experts.

So why aren’t more of us beating a path to health shops or foraging around on sea rocks to stock up? It’s because our knowledge of seaweed’s invaluable properties is not up to par, it seems. But that is all set to change.