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Seaweed: The veggie that links ocean and land

Seaweed specialist Vincent Doumeizel says seaweed can be a nature-based solution to all sizes of global challenges and also make agriculture sustainable

Vincent Doumeizel says seaweed’s potential uses are limitless.
Vincent Doumeizel says seaweed’s potential uses are limitless. (Courtesy: Vincent Doumeizel)

Seaweed is known in India largely as a superfood bringing flavour and health to fine dining, but seaweed specialist Vincent Doumeizel describes the algae as a nature-based solution to all sizes of global challenges. Seaweed’s potential uses are limitless, he has us believe: It is capable of replacing plastic, rebuilding marine ecosystems and cleaning up the oceans. It could even create jobs and income for coastal populations where fishing is no longer an option.

Doumeizel, senior adviser on oceans to the UN Global Compact, an initiative that supports companies committed to responsible business practices, says a deeper understanding of the oceans is key to our survival, and that seaweed will have to be a big part of that future.

Also read: Do 3D printers and seaweed hold the key to childhood nutrition?

Having worked closely with the food industry, Doumeizel, who is also food programme director at the UK-based charity Lloyd’s Register Foundation, realised that the solution to the world’s hunger problems was not going to be found on land. According to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, between 691-783 million people faced hunger in 2022.

The solution is growing in the ocean. “If we want to feed the world of tomorrow, while repairing our planet, we must start to farm the ocean because that’s the source of life on the planet. When you want to rebuild your house, you don’t start with the roof; you start with the foundation,” Doumeizel says in a video interview from Dubai.

His book, The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Has Shaped Our Past And Can Save Our Future, which released earlier this year, charts the evolution of seaweed, its relevance and its uses, the complexities of cultivating these sea vegetables and the impact of climate change on seaweed. It is an almanac of algae, which Doumeizel calls the “base of the pyramid”.

Scientists have already begun demonstrating the many applications of seaweed. Earlier this year, scientists at the University of Sussex, UK, used seaweed to develop biodegradable health sensors, which could be applied like a second skin and revolutionise personal healthcare and fitness monitoring technology. In Ireland, a major retailer sells sustainable underwear made from seaweed.

So far, we have domesticated only 10 to 20 types of seaweed out of the 12,000 that exist globally. Only 200 species are on the market, most of which are wild seaweed. If we are to grow and use seaweed right, we need to learn from our experience and mistakes on land, Doumeizel says. “Do not go into monoculture or industrial farming or GMO (genetically modified organism). Bio mimic what nature is doing.” Edited excerpts from the interview:

What led you to focus on seaweed?

I started my career in Africa and there I saw the real face of world hunger. I decided to devote my life to trying to support better food security all around the world, and I worked 20 years in the food industry. It was during this period, I realised that our food systems were totally outdated. Not only were they not able to feed the world but they are the biggest contributor to climate change, water scarcity, soil depletion, biodiversity loss and to social injustice. We can see that there is a need to change this, but there is no solution on land.

But if you step back, you realise that our planet is covered by oceans. They cover about 70-71% of our planet but contribute to less than 2% of our food. That’s where the revolution is—just like we had one 12,000 years ago, when we started to cultivate land, instead of being hunter-gatherers. We should do the same right now. We should become civilised with two-thirds of our ecosystem, with the ocean. The foundation of life on the planet is plankton and seaweed.

What is the reaction you get when you say “algae”, or seaweed and plankton, could be the future of food (and nutrition), or help the world reverse global warming?

It’s very positive. I feel people are craving good news. We feed our next generation with a lot of fear and drama, when we should feed them hope and solutions. Of course, there’s still some reluctance when it comes to eating seaweed but that’s because we don’t cook it well. If you eat raw potatoes or raw cocoa beans, they are not good either, while chips and chocolate are delicious. It’s the same with seaweed.

Down the years, seaweed has been used for so many applications: food, medicine, agriculture, textiles. What makes it so versatile?

They have evolved in different ways over the last two billion years. At the beginning, there was green and red seaweed. About half a billion years ago, the green seaweed moved to land and gave birth to the vegetation we see around us, the grass, trees, plants. That means, from a genetic perspective, today green seaweed is closer to any tree or grass than it is to red seaweed.

What do you feel is the most promising application for seaweed so far?

It’s very hard to rank the applications—food, animal feed, bio stimulants, medicines, bio packaging and bio textiles... But I think the most overlooked and most interesting application is the fertiliser and bio stimulant part... In coastal communities, at least where I live in Britain, and France, for centuries, we have put seaweed in fields to increase the yield and make crops more resilient.

I keep telling the big food brands that there cannot be any regenerative agriculture without the ocean—using seaweed as a link between ocean and the land. That’s one of the biggest premises of seaweed because it will make agriculture healthier, sustainable and more reasonable.

Doumeizel is senior adviser on oceans to the UN Global Compact, an initiative that supports companies committed to responsible business practices.
Doumeizel is senior adviser on oceans to the UN Global Compact, an initiative that supports companies committed to responsible business practices. (Courtesy: Vincent Doumeizel )

India produces a very small portion of the world’s total seaweed. But in recent months, the government has set up an ambitious Seaweed Mission. Do you think India can play a key role in the global seaweed picture?

I think it can. Similar to Africa, there’s huge potential. India has 17,000 kilometers of coastlines. You have 1.5 billion people, but the seaweed production is way smaller than the island of Zanzibar. You have more than 700 types of seaweed, including tropical seaweed. It has been considerably neglected in the past but now it’s getting some interest from the government. India has a great role to play—you have everything: coastline, biodiversity. The southern region has great potential. You just need to domesticate your local seaweed. That takes time.

A recent study found out that ocean acidification is making ecologically important seaweed species fragile. What sort of an impact is climate change having on seaweed?

Seaweed has been very resilient. They have adapted to many climate crises over the last two billion years. But the current crisis is happening too fast, and they don’t have time to adapt. They are not disappearing. Some of them are mostly moving to colder waters. Ocean acidification is strongly impacting plankton, which are vital to seaweed.

You mention in the book that phycology (the science of seaweed) is practised by only a few scientists. What is the reason for that?

I think we lost the connection with the ocean, not only with seaweed, thousands of years ago. We used to have a great connection as hunter gatherers. It was a very strong part of our diet. But when we developed agriculture, we lost that connection. To understand the ocean ecosystem, you need to understand the role of microorganisms like microalgae, zooplankton and phytoplankton. It was hard to understand that until recently because we didn’t have the right tools. Now that we have AI, Big Data, satellite imagery, remote sensing, and DNA sequencing, we are able to understand how this microbial complexity works, without which you cannot understand life below water.

I do hope that we have more marine biologists in the future because I think we know more about what’s happening on the moon than in the deep ocean right now.

Also read: This marine seagrass can catch and remove plastic from oceans

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