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Seaweed - the money-making, net zero tool the UK is missing out on

Often disregarded as a smelly, slimy thing we find at the beach, seaweed has long been misunderstood, but it is now proving itself to be an incredibly useful resource. With the 14th longest coastline in the world, the UK is well positioned to reap the economic, environmental, health potential of seaweed. But, there are still some challenges which the government can help overcome.

Bert Evans-Bevan | Nature Programme Officer

Seaweed offers significant potential to tackle some of our biggest net zero challenges. A Swedish study recently revealed methane reductions of up to 90% when farmers included red seaweed in daily feed for their livestock. Methane, whilst existing in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, is a far more potent greenhouse gas, and reducing these will play a crucial role in tackling climate change.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is not the only environmental benefit seaweed provides. Our growing demand for plastics will continue to drive future fossil fuel consumption with it predicted to make up 20% of global oil use by 2050, an increase from 6% today. To counter this, we need sustainable packaging alternatives.

As Notpla, a UK based start-up, is showing, seaweed can actually start to replace fossil fuel-made packaging, with the company creating a range of seaweed based products which are entirely biodegradable, plastic-free and even edible; indeed, we’re now starting to see the health benefits of eating seaweed which is rich in micro and macro nutrients with some seaweeds also high in vitamin B12 and iodine. This year, Notpla supplied over one million takeaway boxes for JustEat and the company continues its research with flexible films and rigid materials in the pipeline. 

Whether animal feed, packaging or food, global demand for seaweed derived products is growing. Currently 97% of seaweed production comes from Asia with the global market set to increase by £6 billion outside of China by 2030. 

The UK’s extensive coastline and technological capabilities makes us well placed to enter this market. For farmers, seaweed is a low maintenance crop,  requiring no space on land and indeed no irrigation, needing only sunlight, salt water and nutrients from the ocean to thrive.

A major setback however is upscaling production, with buyers needing steady supply and suppliers needing assured demand. Whilst there’s plenty of financial appetite, obtaining licences for farms is holding this industry back. A further challenge to licensing is local objection as seen in the proposed farm off the coast of  Port Quin where locals expressed concern over the project's impacts on tourism and wildlife recently, and new seaweed farms should address these concerns.

Furthermore, eating seaweed remains a novel idea to most Europeans. Like the lobster, once considered the cockroach of the ocean, seaweed needs a marketing makeover - in Asia they are called sea vegetables, replacing the word ‘weed’ could be a start. 

But, there is also room for the government to help nurture this new economic opportunity for the UK. The government should target existing research and development funding to refine and demonstrate the technology for small-scale, low-cost seaweed processing centres to reduce the upfront cost of establishing profitable farms.

The seaweed revolution is a great example of progressive disruption and how solving environmental problems can create jobs and boost the green economy. To seize the opportunities from seaweed cultivation and innovation, we must bring local communities with us and not disrupt marine ecosystems. Seaweed farming could provide huge economic opportunities along our coastal communities and so it’s essential that locals are consulted and that any proposed seaweed farms get their backing. By farming seaweed regeneratively and consciously of marine habitat we can help restore coastal wildlife, sequester carbon - it grows quicker than tropical rainforests which means it absorbs more carbon per acre than any terrestrial plant - and perhaps even take pressure off of our land. 


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