Seaweed has been frequently touted as a future food, something that could help feed our rapidly growing population. There are going to be another 2.5 billion of us by 2050, and as a sustainable food source that is ridiculously vitamin-dense (just ask anyone who necks spirulina like it's going out of fashion), seaweed might be the big, green, nutritional jackpot.
The global seaweed industry was already valued at $6 billion in 2003. $1 billion of that was attributed to the creation of food enhancers and thickeners, cosmetics, fertilisers and animal feed additives and the remaining $5 billion represented food products for human consumption. Maybe seaweed is already a food of the now and, save our expensive dietary supplements and the silky fronds of wakame we get in our Pret A Manger miso soups, the Western world just needs to catch up with the algae-loving East.
Let's look at why we should be eating more of the slimy stuff. Dr Craig Rose is the founder of the Seaweed Health Foundation and says, for the individual, the benefits of regular seaweed consumption are clear to see. "Seaweed is the ultimate super food," he says. "Nothing compares, gram for gram, to the nutritional content of seaweeds. The benefits extend beyond just nutrition to salt replacement and weight management."
In fact, Rose says the health attributes of seaweed are so broad, that research is "showing benefit for heart health, diabetes and anti-cancer applications."
Research is finding so many new health benefits to eating seaweed it actually can be hard to keep up with. Only last week, the British Journal of Nutrition published a study showing that seaweed supplements could be an effective alternative for women suffering from iodine deficiency. Before that, seaweed as a potential salt replacement was featured in the Research Council UK's Big Ideas of the Future document. Next month, a Seaweed Symposium is even taking place, for goodness' sake. The message is clear—we are being encouraged left, right and centre to turn our guts into oceanic microcosms and fill them with marine algae.
It's not just individual health benefits that make seaweed such a vital future food resource, though—it's the benefit to the planet. "Seaweed requires no fresh water, no land (so no competing with other food crops or natural habitats) and no fertiliser," Rose tells me. "It's great to be in an industry that offers help to people's health as well as so much potential to be sustainable."
The sustainability of seaweed and its low environmental impact are highlighted by Hebridean Seaweed here in the UK. They only use sustainable means to produce their seaweed products. Unlike countries like China or Japan, all the seaweed in the UK is harvested from the wild. None is cultivated.
Outside of the UK, though, the seaweed industry is big business. China grows huge amounts for extract industries (alginates) used for thickening foods and things like ice cream and toothpaste. Japan grows huge amounts of nori seaweed that is used for sushi, but they also eat many other species, too. In fact, one of the most staple ingredients of Japanese cuisine, dashi, the fish and seaweed stock that is used as the base for everything from miso soup to salad dressings, is made from kombu—over 90 percent of which is cultivated.
Here in the UK we have our own little slice of the market. According to Seafish, supermarket chains have stocked dried seaweed since the first "Foods of the World" aisles opened, and many of our restaurants are using fresh and dried seaweed in many dishes as a flavour enhancer. As a simple ingredient that packs more punch than it suggests, seaweed can be an instant flavour-bomb. In fact, our most illustrious food critics, Jay Rayner and Marina O'Loughlin, have both publicly waxed lyrical several times about a simple dish of slip soles grilled in seaweed butter at The Sportsman in Kent. Lest we forget that national dish of Wales, too—the volcanic-looking laverbread, made with laver seaweed that is boiled then puréed and, depending on your fancy, covered in oats and fried.
Cultivated or wild, seaweed can be harvested all year round and, when farmed properly and ethically, because seaweed is naturally regenerating, you can effectively have a crop for as long as you're willing to harvest it—yet another reason why seaweed will feature heavily in our future. It could not only provide food for the developing world, but also jobs and income, too.
The FAO are helping smaller countries grab a piece of the seaweed market. Carrageenan seaweed farming has grown significantly in the Philippines, Indonesia and Tanzania in the last two decades due to the simple farming techniques easily learned, the low requirement of a start up capital and what the FAO call "short production cycles", i.e. invested money coming back to the farmer quicker than on crops that take longer to grow. However, the FAO do say that for smallholdings to develop into larger companies they need help from localised organisations.
One such organisation is Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST) in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has 480 km of coastline and 25,000 km² of coastal area that contains 133 species of seaweed—eight of which are commercially sought-after. The potential for seaweed farming and all its peripheral benefits are huge. The locals just need to be pointed in the right direction.
Two years ago, COAST provided technical support and funding for a seaweed cultivation pilot scheme in the east coast region of Bangladesh. A subsequent survey revealed that the 180 seaweed farmers taking part in the scheme produced an average of 35 tons of seaweed in the first year. However, the following year, the average went up to 405 tons and totaled 54,675 tons from all the farmers on the scheme. That's a net profit increase of approximately 345 per cent.
With support and guidance, it's amazing what smallholdings in developing countries can become, and Dr Rose says this is just the beginning. "The East already eats it and The West will be eating it knowingly in the next 10 years. Seaweed is a massively underutilised resource and is, without a doubt, the future food."
So next time you're in the sea and hilariously hold a bunch of it up to your face like a beard, or to your genitals like a giant merkin, think about sticking it in the frying pan, instead.