It was a jarring, hour-long boat ride to Little Water Caye, a sliver of an island 30 km off the coast of Placencia, Belize. There was only a small wooden house on a beach, and palm trees waving in the Caribbean breeze. But offshore, invisible from the surface, lay the first sustainable seaweed farm in Central America. I helped unload the boat—food, yellow twine ropes, and snorkelling gear—everything we'd need to spend a few days planting seaweed.
The previous day, I'd walked past the headquarters of the Placencia Seaweed Co-operative on the mainland. Packages of dried seaweed, and seaweed in gel form, sat on a shelf inside the open door. The head seaweed farmer, Lowell Godfrey, greeted me and I asked him about the farm. He told me that they farm two types of red seaweed—Eucheuma and Gracilaria—and they do it using sustainable farming practices. He invited me to see for myself.
Prior to this, I knew nothing about seaweed. Yes, I ordered the occasional spicy tuna roll, but seaweed is a multi-billion dollar industry, and I soon discovered that I consume and use seaweed all the time without knowing it. So do you. It's the ultimate multitasker.
Its derivatives are used as emulsifiers in foods and sauces, ice cream, and beer. It's in shampoos, creams, and other cosmetics. Biofuels and fertilizers are made from seaweed, and it's used to treat a variety of ailments like arthritis, rheumatism, and radiation poisoning. Every biology student grows bacteria on seaweed-derived agar gels.
The potential to use seaweed in an even greater capacity is being explored far from Belize's tropical shores, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Willem Brandenburg, who isn't involved with the project in Belize, has spent decades investigating how sustainable seaweed cultivation could help solve the world's imminent food production crisis.
"Our population will grow to more than nine billion by 2050," he said, "and we [will] have to double agricultural production, but decrease the use of resources by half." Seaweed can help. Traditional crops take up precious land, but seaweed grows in the sea—and thus is the only crop that doesn't require fresh water. Plus, it grows fast, year round.
Most seaweed is currently farmed using non-sustainable practices. This involves repeatedly harvesting seaweed in the wild, or using fertilizers in the water, which can lead to unwanted algal blooms. Growing it sustainably, Brandenburg stressed, means determining the best practices for planting, harvesting, and processing the crop.
Back on the aqua-farm, it's easier to see what this means.
Godfrey pointed out that Belize's coastal waters are a perfect ecosystem for such a farm: the water's depth and temperature provide enough nutrients to sustain repeated crops.
"And," Godfrey said, "the farm is a natural nursery."
Squid, lobster, octopus, and fish breed and feed there. Belize has the second-longest reef in the world, and with reefs under pressure from climate change and fishing, this is one way to promote biodiversity.
"The footprint we leave in our operation is a natural seaweed bay."
Godfrey and I swam out to a floating buoy—the only indication of the farm beneath the constant rolling waves. We had a dozen 15-metre-long yellow twine ropes and a mesh bag bulging with seaweed to plant. We put on masks and snorkels to work underwater. Godfrey showed me how to tease apart the coiled strands of the rope, break off a fragment of seaweed, slip it into the uncoiled segment, and then let the strands wind back up, trapping the seaweed inside. Move a few inches down the rope and do it again.
After an hour, I reached the end of my rope that was now stuffed with seaweed. My fingers were numb and I could barely prise apart the strands, but it was satisfying to see a fully planted rope snake away in the current around me, dozens of sprigs of seaweed all the way along. We hoped to complete 11 ropes that day but only managed six, Godfrey finishing most of them.
A single rope yields about thirty pounds of seaweed and they harvest every three months. Each plot contains eleven ropes. "We harvested starter fragments from the wild, but only once," he said. This is what makes the farm sustainable: ten ropes are for harvesting and selling, but the last is saved to use as seed stock for the next crop cycle.
Along with a host of beneficial nutrients, seaweed contains proteins—a must if it's going to be a major player in future food security. "We have enough carbohydrates, we have enough fatty acids, but the one thing that's essential is protein," Brandenburg said.
This is also the reasoning behind promoting the consumption of insects, like mealworms. But the challenge for seaweed and insects is in the marketing. Seaweed and insect food products have to be tasty and people have to want to eat them. That's the real test, Brandenburg said, for the next generation of food scientists.
On my final morning, I tried a seaweed shake for breakfast. I confess that I expected a salty, fishy-smelling, greenish drink. What I was handed was white and frothy, smelling of nutmeg and coconut. And it tasted like a tropical dream.