In the past few years, the seaweed farming industry has taken off, and you may have started to notice its leafy green sold as snacks, or perhaps you’ve come across carrageenan—a product of seaweed used as a natural and sustainable food additive—in your almond milk. But seaweed can offer much more than great health benefits. Seaweed farming creates promising business opportunities in developing countries by promoting rural communities, small family farms and women, while at the same time combating the environmental problems we face, such as overfishing and climate change. Ensuring that this green business stays afloat will have positive ripple effects for years to come.
1. It lets remote coastal families send their kids to school
The majority of the seaweed we consume comes from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Tanzania. And the farmers who harvest that seaweed typically live in remote and poor coastal communities, with few jobs to pursue outside of fishing and tourism. For these farmers, seaweed farming offers the opportunity for economic growth, allowing them to spend money on their homes, healthy diets, goods and their communities.
But perhaps most importantly of all, their increased income lets them send their kids to school. Through seaweed farming, families are able to invest in education, which is an investment for the future.
2. It supports small family farms
Unlike the typical image of farming we all have—one filled with corn, cows and Old MacDonald—seaweed farming does not require buying land, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fresh water, or a multitude of expensive tools and equipment. The only necessities for this business are sunlight, sea water, carbon dioxide, seaweed (which multiplies on its own and is 50 times more productive than corn), and sometimes a boat.
Because of the low costs of getting started in this business, family operations in developing countries have seen great success, with spouses, children and immediate family members working alongside one another on a farm, starting off as unskilled labor and soon moving upward to become lead farmers or businessmen and women.
3. It promotes gender equality
Seaweed farming is one of the few ways of life in developing countries that allows a certain level of flexibility. As a result, women can work in this business and gain an independent income without neglecting their traditional household work. In particular, Tanzania has seen women emerge as leaders in the seaweed world, and they have even moved onto producing seaweed flour in addition to farming.
Women in India are also among the front-runners of the seaweed business, which has earned them respect. Meanwhile, women in the Philippines and Indonesia have seen increased equality within their household as a result of the increase in their socio-economic status as seaweed farmers.
4. It can help with our overfishing problem
Over the years, global fishing practices have become less and less sustainable, resulting in the decline of the global fish stock. Overfishing has become such a problem in our oceans that it is leading to the loss of species and entire ecosystems, which in turn will deprive the world of a rich food source that we depend on for economic, social and dietary reasons. In the coastal areas of this world where fishing is a main industry, the growing field of seaweed farming can offer a lucrative alternative. The fewer people who are out fishing, the less risk for overfishing.
5. It produces natural, sustainable products
Not only is this superfood packed full of protein, omega-3s, minerals, fiber, calcium and more iron than spinach, but seaweed also produces natural products, such as agar and carrageenan, which are thickening and gelling agents used across the globe as food additives, helping to enhance dairy and meat products.
A soluble fiber from red seaweed, carrageenan is used as a food stabilizer in organic foods, and it is a natural healthy food additive, replacing sugar or salt. It can even be used to produce vegan and kosher dietary supplements, such as fish oil, which we take for plenty of health benefits like supporting a healthy heart and brain.
6. It is eco-friendly
Considered to be the trees of the sea, seaweed can help to negate the effects of climate change in our oceans, which has caused rising temperatures and increased levels of carbon dioxide in our waters. Seaweed does this by absorbing carbon dioxide in the water, and it can even absorb five times more CO2 than plants found on land.
In addition, unlike industries such as shrimp production, seaweed growing has little negative effect on coasts and leaves shoreline ecosystems intact. In fact, seaweed can actually leave the coast cleaner than it was before, because it captures toxic chemicals, such as nitrogen from sewage and agricultural runoff.
As we begin to see seaweed appear on our menus and in our grocery stores, we must remember that its many positive impacts on the world go beyond its numerous health benefits and sustainable products. Keeping seaweed farmers in business not only enacts change from the grass roots up, but it is also helps maintain the health of our oceans, affecting our environment on a global scale. So maybe it’s time we recognize this superfood for what it really is: a superhero food.