Green, Nature, Science

Sustainable Seaweed Farms to the Rescue

Seaweed
The UK is hoping to use seaweed for biofuel production.
Image: Shutterstock

Aquaculture is a growing solution for sustainable food systems, especially shellfish farms, because of its ability to grow food without chemical fertilizer or use of fresh water, both growing concerns of conventional food production.  Shellfish farms in Brazil and the Pacific Northwest in the United States are flourishing, helping to restore ocean ecology and alleviate environmental strains on land as well.  Now, in the United Kingdom, aquaculture specialists are hoping that the ocean will provide further by growing seaweed for biofuel production.

While kelp farming is not necessarily a new practice, the taste factor outside of a few select populations has kept it from becoming a viable food crop.  While kelp is rich in nutrients, the Western palette is not usually accustomed.  But kelp has great potential as a biofuel source.  Biofuels, like fish farming, have received a mix of criticism due to less sustainable methods in past attempts at scaling production.  When crops like corn or sugar are grown to produce ethanol, it puts large amounts of stress on farmlands and creates more competition for space devoted to growing food.  Critics say this contributes to higher food prices.  Kelp farming does not have any of those issues because it is grown naturally in the sea, and only gets energy inputs from the sun.  It also grows considerably faster than most land crops.

The UK government has already recognized seaweed farming as a future energy source and a study has found that seaweed has potential to the primary energy provider for the entire world.  The only drawback to kelp farming is the intense labor involved, which may be a barrier to scaling production until technology advances.  Currently tiny kelp starts are placed along a thin cord, which is then wrapped around large ropes and placed in the sea.  The seaweed then is harvested by hand.  In the past, kelp was used widely to manufacture food additives, but have been largely replaced by synthetic thickeners.  However, fermenting technology is improving and may be the key to getting costs at a feasible level.

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