Booming Seaweed Industry is Flourishing as the West Capitalizes on Crop


05 Sep 2016 --- Seaweed is gaining traction as the Western world taps into the wide ranging health benefits of the natural alternative to salt and global cultivation volumes reach 25 million metric tons. According to research by Innova Market Insights, salt intake is an important influencer to more than half of Americans (54 percent) and so seaweed could function as a natural salt substitute. 

On top of that, there has been a steady growth in global launches of seaweed-containing products in the last five years and a 10 percent increase in global supplement launches containing seaweed ingredients from 2014 to 2015. 

Backing up this research is today’s (Sep 5) policy advice from several institutions, detailing how the burgeoning, multi-million dollar seaweed industry needs to avoid some of the pitfalls that have negatively affected other rapidly growing industries such as agriculture, fish and farming. 

From super food, fertilizer, pharmaceutical and industrial gels, there is an increasing number of uses for seaweed which is driving the growth of the industry. Drawing on the expertise of 21 institutions worldwide, UN University's Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health, and the Scottish Association for Marine Science, a UNU associate institute, have published the policy advice to help avoid expensive mistakes and pursue best practices. This has been backed up by case studies of crops such as bananas and shrimps. 

Annually more than 25 million metric tons are being produced by seaweed farms which sets the global value of it as a crop to US$6.4 billion (2014), making it worth more than long established fresh produce crops like lemons and limes, according to the authors of the policy advice.

Seaweed cultivation has come a long way since the fifties and is now considered a sustainable industry offering employment in developing and emerging economies, particularly China which produces 12.8 million tons, more than half of the world’s seaweed. Indonesia  produces 27 percent of global production, at 6.5 tons and the Republic of Korea and the Philippines are also major producers. 

The policy advice also notes how the industry’s growth has other major benefits including helping to fill the gap as fisheries are stagnating and how it’s perceived as an environmentally benign type of aquaculture because it does not need fertilizers or additional feed.  

Click to Enlarge"The seaweed industry in Asia has been growing rapidly for the best part of 60 years, but Europe has only recently woken up to the economic potential of seaweed cultivation. Interest in the West has been sparked by the wide range of seaweed applications, from health foods through to fuel, that can be produced in a sustainable way and has little environmental impact. As the only marine science institute to have associated institute status with the UNU, we are proud to be involved with helping to lead the discussion on this increasingly important topic,” says Nicholas Owens, Director, SAMS.

"Rapidly increasing seaweed cultivation globally will be good for commerce and ope

n up a range of new products, but we must also try to minimize any negative effects that this industry may have on coastal marine environments. The seaweed industry must be developed in a sustainable way that considers not just how to maximize profits but maintain the highest biosecurity standards to prevent the introduction of pests and disease. It will also be crucial to develop new indigenous disease-resistant strains of seaweed, wherever possible,” says lead author Elizabeth J. Cottier-Cook, SAMS.

Director, UNU-INWEH, Vladimir Smakhtin, echoes these thoughts. "The growth of the seaweed industry in the past half century constitutes an important success story and it continues to expand to the benefit of some of the world's most impoverished people. But the industry needs to learn fast from other sectors to ensure that it remains sustainable,” he says. 

The authors also say how the industry needs to guard against non-indigenous pests and pathogens to promote genetic diversity of seaweed stocks and avoid over reliance on a single crop which can lead to vulnerabilities. In the Philippines between 2011 and 2013, a bacteria outbreak which whitened the branches of a valuable seaweed species led to a devastating losses estimated to be around US$310 million. 

by Gaynor Selby

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