By Scott Smith
In the relentless race to feed billions of people, and to maximize profit while doing so, the world’s increasingly globalized agriculture industry has gobbled up nearly half of the planet’s habitable land. Much of that acreage is devoted to the cruel practice of raising animals for slaughter.
On the 11% of land used for crop production by subsistence farmers and Big Ag alike, toxic pesticides and fertilizers have wreaked environmental havoc and sparked steep declines in wildlife and biodiversity. Such farming practices have also degraded the very thing all terrestrial food production depends on: the soil.
People who respect animals and want to help combat the climate crisis are choosing Plan B—a plant-based diet. And now, a “Plan Sea” is gaining momentum.
And that’s good news, because ocean crop farming, principally growing and harvesting kelp and other kinds of seaweed, shows great promise as a sustainable alternative to today’s chemically intensive land-based agriculture.
Kelp, the most common variety used for food, and other seaweeds can be farmed without fertilizers or other chemicals, and with minimal impact on the environment, according to research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Farmers are not ripping up huge underwater kelp forests, which effectively mitigate climate change, growing by up to two feet a day and sequestering 10 times more carbon dioxide than land-living trees or plants, according to a 2022 report published by the World Economic Forum. In the U.S., the seaweed is being grown from seeds attached to long lines. And as it grows it sucks up carbon dioxide, helps fight ocean acidification and aids local marine life like mussels and juvenile fish.
Sea greens are “a crop that requires no irrigation, no fertilizer or herbicides, no feed, and no arable land to grow,” says Courtney Boyd Meyers, founder and CEO of AKUA, a Brooklyn-based company that works with ocean farms in New England to produce kelp-based jerky and burgers. Boyd Meyers was recently featured in an article on wellandgood.com, which hailed edible sea greens as the wellness trend in food for 2022.
“An exciting new frontier for agriculture is opening up 70% of the world’s surface that has not traditionally been used for crops—the ocean,” is how forbes.com puts it, citing the fact that of the estimated 11,000 known species of seaweed around the world, 221 species are of commercial value and 10 are extensively cultivated.
“If done effectively, ocean crop farming could also become a sustainable tool to help fight the effects of climate change while also addressing the emerging nutrition and water scarcity crisis,” reports Forbes.
In the U.S., Maine is the current hot bed for seaweed farming. “Seaweed is Maine’s new cash crop,” reports The Washington Post in a recent article focusing on how a young company, Atlantic Sea Farms, is offering the state’s lobster fishers an opportunity to quit crustaceans altogether in favor of kelp farming.
Each fall, CEO Briana Warner partners with anglers to fix kelp seeds to 1,000-foot-long ropes. By late spring, attached to each submerged line is close to 6,000 pounds of fresh sugar kelp. The seaweed is harvested, flash frozen and used to make kelp cubes for smoothies, as well as seaweed salad, seaweed kraut and more, explains WaPo.
When Warner started in 2018, two kelp farms in the state were yielding around 30,000 pounds total. The company now works with 27 partner “farmers,” and the 2022 harvest brought in just under 1 million pounds of seaweed. The company’s products are now sold in more than 2,000 stores across the country, as well as in restaurants and college cafeterias.
The efforts of Atlantic Sea Farms and other ocean farmers are not to be confused with industrial fishing fleets that vacuum up huge swaths of the ocean, practices that have caused fish populations to plummet from 90% in 1974 to 65% or less in 2017 according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
Nor is seaweed farming the same as most forms of modern aquaculture, which is the practice of raising fish for slaughter in crowded enclosures. The concerns around these systems that keep fish packed in cages in the ocean range from habitat destruction and risks to wild fish populations, to effluent laced with pesticides and veterinary drugs.
Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program filed a petition with Environmental Appeals Board challenging a proposed aquaculture facility in the Gulf of Mexico, which could dump animal waste and pharmaceuticals into the open ocean.
“It would be the first of its kind in federal waters and could set precedent for large scale industrial facilities that pollute the oceans,” explained Jennifer Best, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “FoA plans to challenge this in federal court if it proceeds as planned.”
Seaweed does a body good
Kelp is highly nutritious because it’s chock full of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
“Kelp is a great source of iodine, vitamin C, manganese, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and various antioxidants,” Liz Wyosnick, a registered dietitian nutritionist, tells shape.com. “It also has iron, zinc, calcium, copper, and vanadium, [a mineral] linked to blood sugar regulation.”
A certain Sailor Man may have been “strong to the ‘finich,’ ‘cause I eats me spinach,” but you have to wonder if Popeye wasn’t just scarfing down seaweed all along. It may be the true superfood we, and the planet, need.
Get started adding seaweed to your diet. Here’s a sampling of seaweed-based products
Annie Chun’s Organic Seaweed Snacks are known for their leafy, briny crunch and scant calorie count (25 calories per serving). Available in four flavors, including Sesame and Wasabi, and made without preservatives, they are the top-selling seaweed snack in the U.S.
AKUA makes kelp burgers and ground kelp, which can be used in tacos, meatballs and sauces. This summer it unveiled a new kelp food item – Krab Cakes. Created with a blend of kelp, cannellini beans, Dijon mustard, artichokes, garlic, onion and celery, the Krab Cakes, says AKUA, are “thick, firm and chewy with hints of lemon and pepper, pairing perfectly with vegan tartar sauce, spicy mayo or remoulade.”
Atlantic Sea Farms is known for its frozen kelp cubes, flavored with ginger and New England blueberries and cranberries, to make smoothies. The cubes of pureed fresh kelp can be added to soups, sauces and dressings as well. They also sell Fermented Seaweed Salad, Sea-Beet Kraut, and a mild kimchi called Sea-Chi.
Springtide Seaweed specializes in air-dried kelp. As a powder it can be used in seasonings, like their Red Bay and Italian varieties. Dried kelp ribbons can be added to soups, stews, or any dish in place of your usual leafy greens.
A word of caution: “Some brown kelps, such as the sugar kelp grown in New England, are very high in iodine,” advises Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, in a recent CNN article. The article adds, “Since the concentration of specific nutrients in seaweed can interact with various medications, check with your doctor if you have a thyroid condition or take blood thinners before going all in.”