Researchers map the potential of 34 species for seaweed farming

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but seaweed farming could help bolster food security around the globe, says a new study.

The idea is not new, but the modelling suggests farming the ocean might offer alternatives to expanding land-based agriculture, as we try to feed 9.8 billion people by 2050.

Long a staple in Japan, Korea and China, seaweed is also on the menu in Norway, Iceland, parts of the UK, and features in some First Nations cuisines.

In the interests of science, I braved several taste whetters, including seaweed tea, seaweed pasta, even a kelp salsa.

Admittedly, my taste buds are more taken by the apparent scholarly ranking of seaweed as one of our emerging climate solutions de jour.

I arrived at this conclusion after trying to count the number of research papers recently published on seaweed; I soon stopped and went looking for a snack.

A recent overview of a “litany of papers” – from both sides of the climate-seaweed equation – was published in late 2021 in Botanica Marina.

It concluded that the growing number of discussions around seaweed farming takes two forms: one, the ecological consequences for seaweed of climate and ocean changes; the second, how seaweed might help tackle our growing list of climate woes.

Also in Cosmos: Seaweed farming nearly killed this scientist

The latest contribution on the solutions side is from researchers at the University of Queensland and is published in Nature Sustainability.

The authors write: “Seaweed biomass farmed in the ocean could help reduce demand for terrestrial crops and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by providing a substitute or supplement for food, animal feed and biofuels.”

The researchers mapped the potential of farming more of the 34 commercially important seaweed species and estimated the environmental benefits.

They used a range of scenarios based on land-use changes, GHG emissions, water and fertiliser use, and projected changes in species presence by 2050.

PhD candidate Scott Spillias from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Science and lead author on the paper, explains.

“Our study found that expanding seaweed farming could help reduce demand for terrestrial crops and reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by up to 2.6 billion tonnes of CO 2-equivalent per year.”

The seaweed farming research was conducted by University of Queensland in collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, CSIRO, and the University of Tasmania.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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