One of the biggest sources of human food on the planet is still not sufficiently explored: seaweed – which grows quickly, has a high nutritional value and even helps to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions – must be the food of the future .
The conclusion is from a group of researchers, entrepreneurs and representatives of international agencies who participated in lectures on what they called the "seaweed revolution" during the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.
The expectation is that the seaweed market, which is currently valued at about US$11 billion a year, could reach US$85 billion by 2030, according to the World Bank's global director of the environment, Valerie Hickey. Despite the growth potential, the acceptance of these products is still limited, especially in western countries.
“There is growing interest in seaweed, but there are also some cultural differences in terms of their acceptance as food. We have some regions where this tradition already exists, such as Asia, but in other areas there is still a long way to go,” explained the representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Merete Tanstad.
In western countries, the best-known application of seaweed in food is in Japanese cuisine restaurants – nori, a kind of sheet made from pressed and dehydrated seaweed, is used in temaki and sushi, for example.
But the possibilities go far beyond that: a number of startups are investing in producing other foods made from algae. From mortadella to shrimp to imitation fish, companies and research groups are developing several new products.
The UN Special Envoy for the Oceans, Peter Thomson, is one of the great advocates of popularizing seaweed-based foods.
To illustrate that a change in eating habits may occur in the next few years, Thomson told the story of his two-year-old granddaughter, who is a fan of eating nori chips.
“When I was a kid, I used to have pure sugar lollipops for snack. Boiled sugar. How healthy was that? Whereas today my two-year-old granddaughter has never even experienced anything like this," said Thomson. "She just loves dried seaweed, nori, which you can buy at any health food store. She chews it up and asks for more and, lo and behold, it's just dried seaweed."
For the environment director of the World Bank, seaweed is part of the list of solutions to the problem of hunger in the world and also to reduce the effects of climate change, but it needs to be the target of more investment in the coming years.
"Seaweed really is the answer, but nobody takes it seriously. Everyone always thinks it's a very niche market," complained Valerie Hickey during a panel at the conference.
A 3D-printed lab-grown sea bass fillet, an imitation shrimp and even a version of the traditional bologna: all these products are being developed using seaweed by startups or groups of scientists around the world.
The mortadella that contains microalgae, for example, is a New Zealand creation that has chefs behind it who have worked in award-winning restaurants in Europe. The sausage developed by startup New Fish takes advantage of the slightly salty flavor of the seaweed, which is combined with a typical New Zealand shellfish called abalone and a pork mixture.
"We believe that sustainable seaweed should become the foundation of our seafood crops and we are supporting the industry's growth through our products," the founders say in an official statement.
American startup New Wave Foods, which manufactures replica seafood, announced the creation of a shrimp made from seaweed and non-GMO plant proteins, which would bring a flavor and texture “virtually indistinguishable” from the real crustacean. The company raised more than US$ 18 million in investments to develop the food.
Outside the corporate world, there are also new uses for seaweed in development. At the University of Lisbon, scientists earlier this year received funding of EUR 215,000 ($218,887) for the Algae2Fish project, from the Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB).
The goal is to create the first sea bass-like fillet of fish made solely from 3D-printed algae. The expectation is that, in about two years, the first prototype will be ready and can be tasted by a panel of tasters.
The main motivation behind these studies is the potential that seaweed farms have to absorb CO2 emissions, the gas that is the main driver of climate change.
In addition, algae farms are also considered strategic to reduce ocean acidification and to restore marine ecosystems.
The production of algae for commercial purposes was also pointed out by experts as an alternative for fishing communities affected by the reduction in schools of fish.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was first published in Portuguese in G1 on July 3, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Seaweed in the ocean / Credit: Oleksandr Sushko via Unsplash.