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Kickstarting the seaweed revolution, part two: Overcoming technical barriers and negative consumer perception

Article-Kickstarting the seaweed revolution, part two: Overcoming technical barriers and negative consumer perception

seaweed pt2 RS Credit KIAN YEW CHOW.jpg
While seaweed farming is relatively simple, the nascent industry still faces obstacles from knowledge gaps to a lack of consumer demand outside Asia. Seaweed expert and senior advisor to the United Nations Vincent Doumeizel explains how these can be overcome.

Vincent Doumeizel, senior adviser to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), spent most of his career looking for a solution on land to the sustainability crisis facing the agri-food system – from greenhouse gas emissions to biodiversity loss and from water scarcity to soil depletion – without finding it.

He then turned his attention to the seas and oceans, convinced of the benefits that seaweed cultivation and consumption offer human, animal, and planetary health.

The beauty of seaweed farming is its simplicity, he told delegates at the 2023 Future of Nutrition Summit in Frankfurt.

“There is no big capex and no big technology involved; it's quite straightforward. You put ropes in the ocean, and you let the magic seaweed grow. You don't need land, pesticides, you don't need to feed them. It's unlikely that they will fly or swim away and – guess what – you don't need to water them. It's a free resource.”

Despite this relative simplicity, there are several key barriers that are hindering the development of the sector – starting with limited awareness of seaweed’s important sustainable potential and the resulting lack of advocacy. Asian countries have domesticated several species of seaweed and today the region dominates global seaweed cultivation, but in Europe, there is very little knowledge on how to cultivate native species. 

“We have to domesticate our own seaweed and it's not easy,” Doumeizel said. “Imagine that seaweed has two billion years of existence. They have developed very complex ways to protect themselves – for example, some seaweed, if attacked by seasnails, will release a toxin that is disgusting for the seasnail – and we don't [want to] use pesticides. So, all of this complexity we need to learn about. And it’s a lot: we understand what is happening on the moon better than in the deep ocean.”

Investing in seaweed science and infrastructure

Policymakers are beginning to take note of this knowledge gap. The first ever EU Algae awareness summit took place in France last year with the aim of designing an EU policy on seaweed, while French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to launch a specific strategy for France, Doumeizel said.

Although seaweed is an inherently low-tech solution to multiple problems, leveraging technology is key to efficiently scaling up, he said.

“I don't think we should oppose solutions. AI can really help seaweed because it will help us understand faster how it can grow, what are the right conditions, what is the mix of […] microbes that enable the growth of seaweed,” he said. “We need remote sensors, AI, GPS…”

To this end, Doumeizel leads the non-profit Global Seaweed Coalition (GSC), which is working to help establish a global seaweed industry that provides safe seaweed-based products that are grown in safe working conditions and regenerate marine biodiversity as they grow.

Founded by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation in partnership with the UNGC and the French national scientific research institute (CNRS), the GSC funds research into seaweed and makes all its learnings public in order to inform seaweed growers, support evidence-based policymaking, and help unlock the full potential of seaweed.

“We release information, we try to share knowledge, gather seaweed enthusiasts, support innovation, scale up investment, and so forth,” Doumeizel said. “We want to become the voice and seaweed community at a global level because it took us 12,000 years to domesticate crops; we won`t have that much time to domesticate the ocean.”

Overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor: How to mainstream seaweed in the western diet

Asia is by far the global powerhouse for seaweed production, accounting for over 97% of global yields, and in Asia, 99% of seaweed is cultivated in farms.

In comparison, there are only two seaweed farms in Europe, and they are currently not operating at full scale because there is not enough market demand to supply, Doumeizel said.

One of the biggest barriers to creating market demand in western countries is consumer perception. While seaweed accounts for about 10% of food eaten in Japan and contributes to the well-documented healthiness of the traditional Japanese diet, people in many other countries have an aversion to eating algae, seeing it as slimy and fishy. 

You have to overcome your natural resistance,” Doumeizel said. “I'm often told that seaweed is no good, but I invite you to try a raw potato. It's not good. Or a cocoa bean. It's not good either. But chocolate and chips – yes!”

The key is learning to cook seaweed and using it in delicious recipes, he said. “There are multiple flavours here, they are absolutely delicious and they contain this umami flavour that means 'delicious taste' in Japanese.”

Doumeizel is optimistic that a cultural shift is on the horizon. Brands can leverage the heritage element of eating seaweed – it was a staple food for Indigenous people around the world from Native Americans to Australian Aborigines and from New Zealand Māori to Norwegian Vikings – while also highlighting it as an on-trend, sustainable food for the future. 

"It's all about tradition – and fashion,” he said. “If you told my grandmother that I would spend a fortune eating raw fish in a Japanese restaurant, she would say I was nuts. In the 1950s, we had a cultural invasion from the US with burgers, Hollywood, and rock ‘n’ roll, but look at what's coming - Squid Games, K-pop and mangas. Asian culture is influencing so hopefully they will bring seaweed with them.”

Novel ingredient, familiar format: Seaweed pasta, bread, and burgers

Manufacturers can also use certain strategies to increase acceptance, such as using seaweed as an ingredient in familiar product formats. The Netherlands-based Dutch Weed Burger makes, as its name suggests, plant-based burger patties with microalgae and seaweed while another company, Seamore, uses dried Himanthalia Elongata, a spaghetti-shaped seaweed to make its sea pasta. Its range also includes seaweed wraps, made of wakame and himanthalia, and seaweed chips. 

According to Seamore founder and CEO Willem Sodderland, easy-to-use, familiar formats are crucial to ensuring uptake. He previously told this publication: “There is a small and growing segment that is keen on seaweed’s ‘pure’ application as a new veggie food. But for a much larger segment, seaweed as a visible, whole ingredient is one bridge too far, no matter how attractive and accessible it is marketed.”

“For this segment, we started developing hybrid, ‘powered by seaweed’ products such as wraps, chips, and bread. There is no need to learn new skills or cook and they are very close to the normal alternatives in taste, texture, and price.”

For Doumeizel, small steps are fundamental to changing consumer behaviour and creating market demand. He also called on the industry to start calling seaweed ‘sea vegetables’, a term that better reflects its benefits and is more appealing.

“I think we are all changemakers in our daily lives,” he added. “Each time we eat and drink, we vote for the world we want tomorrow. So, the first thing to do is to learn how to cook seaweed, cook it for our kids and educate them about how it's very nice, and create a market.”

Main image: A seaweed farm in China. © iStock/KIAN YEW CHOW