Sea-farmed supercrop: how seaweed may remodel the best way we stay

“You can simply see the buoys of the seafarm,” Dr Sophie Steinhagen yells over the excessive whine of the boat because it approaches the small islands of Sweden’s Koster archipelago. The engine drops to a sputter, and Steinhagen heaves up a rope to disclose the harvest hanging beneath: strand after strand of sea lettuce, translucent and emerald inexperienced.

“That is one person who we might acquire now and preserve as a father or mother, as a result of it’s rising very quick,” she exclaims. In summer time, these waters teem with sea kayaks and yachts from neighbouring Norway, however for Steinhagen and the seafarming group on the Tjärnö Marine Laboratory, spring is their peak season.

For one factor, it means much less animal and vegetation on the seaweed.“Once you purchase a lettuce, you don’t need to have a caterpillar in there. The identical is true for seaweed: you don’t need a crab or snail eggs”. Extra importantly, spring can be when sea lettuce yields probably the most protein.

Actually, consultants imagine that seaweed might be a key crop within the “protein shift” away from meat. A few of final spring’s harvest right here hit about 30% protein, near the extent that might make it compete in opposition to the world’s different massive protein sources like meat and soya.

Seaweed farming in Sweden might be an important element of the shift away from consuming meat for protein.

Steinhagen additionally believes passionately that this plant – long eaten as “green laver” on the coasts of Britain – could be a extra sustainable various to soya. Sea lettuce doesn’t draw on scarce assets of land and contemporary water.

“There isn’t any different possibility,” she says later, on a bench exterior the Tjärnö Marine Laboratory’s greenhouses. “Local weather change is affecting most of our crop techniques and we’re in pressing want of recent manufacturing. We can not lengthen terrestrial farmland – so we have to go into the ocean.”

It’s not only a protein supply. As we shift to a bio-based rather than fossil-fuel-based economy, seaweed may present a variety of the compounds we’d like.

For instance, Ulrica Edlund, Steinhagen’s collaborator at KTH Royal Institute of Expertise in Stockholm, is a professor of polymer science who has used polysaccharides extracted from seaweed to make plastic movies, filaments and different plastic supplies. “It’s round as a result of it offers a route away from fossil-based plastics. It means that you can use biomass that may be produced at a very excessive price within the oceans,” Edlund says. “You don’t have to attend 50 years for the forest to develop till you’ll be able to harvest these polymers.”

New startup packaging firms are utilizing these advances to develop seaweed-based plastics, such as the UK’s Notpla or the US firm Sway, although there are challenges, too: until you’re taking steps to change their chemical construction, seaweed plastics take in somewhat than repel water, turning them right into a formless slime.

Seaweed ecologist Dr Sophie Steinhagen at work in the Koster archipelago.
Seaweed ecologist Dr Sophie Steinhagen at work within the Koster archipelago.

Seaweed farming can be, exterior Asia, in its infancy. However the methods Steinhagen’s workforce have helped develop are starting to be utilized extra extensively. Nordic Sea Farms, an organization spun-off from the laboratory, has lengthy been rising sugar kelp, and has seen hovering demand from native eating places and biomaterials startups. In October, it launched an EU-funded programme to develop industrial sea lettuce cultivation at Otterön, or Otter Island, 20km down the coast in the direction of Gothenburg.

“So far as we’re conscious, there’s no sea-based cultivation of Ulva [sea lettuce] up-and-running on a industrial scale,” says Göran Nylund, a former researcher on the marine laboratory, who co-founded the corporate.
The primary seeded ropes – 20km of them – shall be set out this autumn, with the primary harvest anticipated subsequent spring.

Seaweed plantations are starting to pop up all alongside Europe’s Atlantic and North Sea coasts. There at the moment are at the very least seven seaweed farming firms in neighbouring Norway. Within the Faroe Islands, there may be Ocean Rainforest, maybe Europe’s main seaweed producer. Others have sprouted in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the UK, Eire, Spain and Portugal. There are even rising multinationals: Dutch-owned The Seaweed Company operates farms in Eire, Morocco and India.

Regardless of all this, Europe nonetheless produces solely a tiny fraction of the world’s seaweed: 90% of the estimated £14bn seaweed market is produced in Asia, the place whole bays in China, Indonesia and Japan are taken up by seaweed farms.

Steinhagen inspects the tanks in her “seaweed kindergarten”.
Steinhagen inspects the tanks in her “seaweed kindergarten”.

The EU at the moment produces solely a tiny 1,000 tonnes of seaweed a yr, in opposition to 35m tonnes of worldwide manufacturing, though a report by the advisory agency Systemiq argues that it may doubtlessly hit 8m tonnes a yr by the top of this decade.

“Initially, it is advisable to discover the water space, and – in comparison with Asia – that’s fairly sophisticated,” Nyland says of the limitations. “One other problem is that we’d like some technical improvement. [Asian countries] have been doing this for a very long time, however [some] are additionally low-income international locations, so their methodologies will not be appropriate for us, as a result of our salaries are too excessive.”

One solution to discover extra sea entry is The Seaweed Firm’s experiment in rising seaweed between offshore wind generators within the North Sea. In the meantime, some firms are growing their very own seaweed harvesting equipment to make the job much less labour intensive. However there’s nonetheless no seaweed equal of a mix harvester or tractor you should purchase off the shelf.

At Tjärnö, which is a part of the College of Gothenburg, Steinhagen is working exhausting to enhance seaweed strains to make them extra productive, simply as terrestrial crops have been improved over centuries. “We need to discover strains which have a excessive progress price and concurrently a excessive protein content material,” she says. “This may be finished by genetic choice or pressure choice – the standard horticultural strategies – however we will additionally choose for various vitamins which may enrich the protein content material.”

Steinhagen seeks the holy grail of high-growth, high-protein strains of seaweed.
Steinhagen seeks the holy grail of high-growth, high-protein strains of seaweed.

Within the laboratories, she exhibits her “seaweed kindergarten”: rows of effervescent cylindrical tanks the place she breeds new varieties, clones new vegetation, and seeds vegetation on rolls of twine that are then wrapped on the ropes and laid out to sea.

“You see that the outer margins are brownish – that’s the place they launch the swarmers,” she says, displaying me a container of sexually mature sea lettuce. “It’s identical to sperm: they’ve flagella, they’ll transfer.”

That is solely half of the puzzle. Within the metropolis of Gothenburg, a workforce at Chalmers College of Expertise is easy methods to most effectively and economically extract the protein. Prof Ingrid Undeland, the analysis coordinator for Blue Food, Sweden’s “Centre for Future Seafood”, says that seaweed is getting ever extra “fashionable” however she desires it to flee from high-end New Nordic eating places and vegan meals shops and be offered as a commodified bulk protein powder – like those derived from soya, whey or pea which can be used to make vegetarian mince.

The brand new product will, she concedes, have “a bit of bit extra of a marine flavour profile” than the just about tasteless whey and soy protein. “If you wish to make a vanilla smoothie that doesn’t style of something, that could be difficult,” she says. “However if you wish to make a savoury product, with some umami, saltiness and marine flavour, it might be a bonus.”

Not like soya and pea vegetation, the place protein is concentrated in particular our bodies within the cells of the bean or pea, seaweed protein is unfold way more extensively, each within the vegetation and inside their cells, making the protein more durable to achieve with the weak alkali utilized in extraction.

João Trigo is a PhD pupil in Undeland’s lab, engaged on bettering extraction methods. At finest, he says, he can now extract about 10% of the protein in sea lettuce. Provided that dried sea lettuce is at finest 30% protein, meaning solely three grams of protein would come out of 100g of dry sea lettuce.

In his workplace, he holds up the top results of his labours: a check tube containing a small quantity of inexperienced crystalline flakes which took an entire sack of sea lettuce to supply. “Let’s say if we begin with 10kg of contemporary sea lettuce, we’d find yourself with round 40g of dried protein isolate,” he says. “In order that tells you that we nonetheless have some solution to go.”

The answer, he and Edlund agree, could be a biorefinery strategy, with the protein eliminated first, then different helpful substances resembling thickening brokers already used within the meals business, then polysaccharides for plastics. The rest may then be burned as biofuel.

“It will be a disgrace to throw this biomass away,” Edlund says.
“There are such a lot of refined molecules in there that nature made, so why not profit from them?”

Steinhagen is assured that her pilot farm is the beginning of a brand new business. “Individuals at all times chuckle on the individual doing new issues,” she says. “However look as we speak, now we have electrical energy and now we have vehicles. It takes time.”

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