Ocean farming is one of the most promising ideas to feed a world with 9 billion people. Sea vegetables – lets not call them all weeds – are nutritious and eaten in many parts of the world. They are grown without fertilisers and pesticides, so they are always organic. No land or fresh water is required. Since they provide a breeding ground for fish, ocean farming enhances rather than competes with the fishing industry. It is a potentially restorative form of farming.
It’s not just for food either. Seaweed can be grown for compost and soil improvement. Companies are developing seaweed based biofuels, which would reduce pressure on land and food crops. Others are using seaweed for new forms of plastics, including edible packaging. Ocean farming is a huge growth area that could provide energy and materials in the future as well as food. And with 70% of the planet covered by oceans, there is no shortage of it to go around.
With all of that in mind, I was pleased to see that Britain’s first commercial ocean farm was given the go ahead recently. A Yorkshire based company called Seagrown has secured funding and permission for a 25 hectare seaweed farm off Scarborough. It’s an ambitious project, especially since Seagrown is currently a husband and wife operation of two, harvesting by hand as one of a few specialist suppliers.
It’s not the only proper sea farm in the works. Another smaller farm is planned for Start Bay in Devon, run by a pioneering marine biologist named Dr Angela Mead. There are also two experimental ones in Scotland, where scientists are developing ocean farming techniques.
A further benefit of sea farming is that it creates jobs in places where they are really needed. Coastal communities are some of Britain’s most disadvantaged. The decline of the fishing industry and the falling costs of overseas holidays have led to a hollowing out of many coastal towns and villages. The rise in demand for seaweed could provide a boost to those local economies. It is good to see that the SeaGrown project is funded by the government’s Coastal Communities Fund, which suggests they have spotted the opportunity.
It’s important to note that I’m talking here about ocean farming, not just harvesting. With rising interest in seaweed, there have been companies hoping to mechanically harvest seaweed in Scotland and Ireland. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s done sustainably, but who’s going to be checking on that? It’s easy to imagine the plundering of the kelp forests to provide us with biofuels, and that would just extend human exploitation to the marine environment even further. Commercial ocean farming is different, because it seeds the plants in the first place. It’s growing the seaweed and then harvesting it, and that can be done sustainably.
Like edible insects, sea vegetables are an industry I have an eye on because, as well as the reasons above, I want to eat them myself. I can’t afford to eat insects or seaweed at the moment, because they’re too specialist. I looked up seaweed suppliers recently for a dish in my favourite recipe book, and found a 15g packet of ‘sea greens’ retailing for £4.20. That works out at almost £280 a kilo, which is crazy for something that grows for free in the sea.
I look forward to that changing. If the new ventures are a success, we might see sea vegetables slowly creep into the mainstream, and perhaps even appear on the supermarket shelves eventually.