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Seaweed and You: Good Health and Symbiosis in the Anthropocene

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Guest post courtesy of David Parker

This may seem like an odd title for a food blog.  True enough, but here’s the point, up front: how we choose to live and eat is reshaping the world around us.  This effects our own health and the ability of nature to thrive around us.  Despite our advances through history, it seems we tend to forget that we are in fact, a part of nature.  As renowned chef, Dan Barber observed in his book The Third Plate: “You are not what you eat, but what you eat eats.” And going a step further, whatever you eat, and whatever it consumed for nourishment, has a footprint in the closed ecosystem we know as planet Earth. The Anthropocene Epoch refers to an unofficial unit of time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity began to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

Think about it. Where do your vegetables and leafy greens come from? Today, and throughout time, almost all the vegetables we humans have consumed have been grown in soil that required land for cultivation, fresh water for irrigation, and in more recent times, fertilizers that come with a fossil fuel footprint. Today, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that with projected population growth, the world will need to produce 60% more food by 2050.  Where will the food we need come from? Fortunately, there are advances in vertical farming and regenerative agriculture that are reducing the impact on terra firma; but will that sustainably get us where we need to go?  Another essential opportunity is to turn to the sea for our vegetables, freeing-up land so that it can be restored to natural states, regenerating soil health, reducing the need to draw down freshwater reserves and reducing altogether reliance on fertilizer products that are carbon intensive. This is where seaweed comes in.

Seaweed forests create an understory and canopy that marine life depends on

Oceans cover 70% of the Earth and as we strive to minimize and adapt to climate change and reduce carbon emissions, we must evolve and truly engage with nature to learn from it and seek symbiotic - mutually beneficial, relationships and cooperation between different species. 

Cultivating and rewilding seaweed forests is a prime example of the opportunity to observe, learn and work with nature so that we may all thrive.   Seaweeds are plant-like algae. Unlike terrestrial plants, they have holdfasts that keep them in place and rather than drawing nutrients and minerals through roots, they absorb them directly from the water around them - and they do this very efficiently. In fact, some seaweed species like Macrocystis (Macro kelp/giant kelp), the largest of all seaweed species, is among the fastest growing organisms on Earth – growing at rates of up to 60 cm/day.  This amazing kelp is native to the waters of the Pacific Ocean along the coastlines of North and South America.  A hectare of kelp is estimated to absorb carbon dioxide at 20 times the rate of the equivalent area of forested land.

Kelp also helps improve water quality and can reduce local acidification of ocean waters.  It is estimated that oceans absorb about 25 percent of atmospheric greenhouse gases and “studies suggest that kelp sequesters more carbon than all other marine plants combined[1].”  Marine algae, from microscopic diatoms to the giant kelps, also produce 50-80% of the oxygen on earth.

Kelp forests are habitat that provide nursery area, shelter and food critical to other species.  They also mitigate storm surge and protect coastlines as a buffer to waves that can cause erosion. Seaweed-based products also present socio-economic opportunities for farming and harvesting seaweed that support coastal communities and Indigenous Nations.

While kelp thrives in the coastal waters of British Columbia, it has been under stress and is disappearing in some areas due to declines in sea otters that are predators of sea urchins that consume seaweed.  Warming ocean waters have also contributed to sea star wasting disease that has decimated this important predator of purple urchins. These are examples symbiotic relationships that have created the conditions essential for kelp and other seaweeds to thrive. What happens when those relationships falter? If kelp is important in absorbing carbon and producing oxygen, what are the implications if comes under stress or disappears at scale?

Today, as society better understands the impacts we have on the planet, interest and determination to support re-wilding and sea forest conservation is gaining momentum around the world.  In British Columbia, an emergent seaweed sector is being created with leadership and support from Indigenous Nations and guardian stewards, scientists, conservation organizations, government and the private sector.

“You are not what what you eat, but what eat, eats” Chef Dan Barber, The Third Plate

Yes, I am saying it again, because it is critical that we understand and internalize this reality.  The coastal waters of British Columbia support more than 640 species of red, green and brown seaweeds.[2]   These pristine waters are rich in nutrients that contribute to good nutrition that can enable both seaweed and us to thrive.  Seaweed has been a part of the diet of indigenous peoples the world over for tens of thousands of years.  More recently, seaweeds have been farmed mainly in Asian countries where they are part of daily food choices for a healthy diet. Korean seaweed soup (Miyeok Guk) is known as the birthday soup because it is traditionally given to mothers as they recover from childbirth.[3]

So, what’s so great about seaweed?  Lots! In the case of Macro Kelp, the health benefits are many, but let’s begin with taste because that is why you are going to want to eat it.  Seaweed brings “umami” one of the five core tastes to food dishes (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty).  Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese, and its taste is often described as the meaty, savory deliciousness that deepens flavour.[4]  “Mouth feel” is another reason we choose some foods over others.  We simply enjoy eating them.  Cooking with kelp and adding it to dishes for flavour and texture creates that experience.  Just ask Chef Robert Clark: "I'm excited to work with such an amazing and versatile product as it truly is a remarkable natural flavour enhancer that's locally harvested from our pristine BC waters." 

Macro Kelp is rich in vitamins and minerals especially iodine and potassium.[5]  “Iodine is important for thyroid health.  It also holds more than 40 minerals including calcium, boron, zinc, copper, and manganese, which help maintain bone density and improve healing time and can help prevent the onset of osteoporosis.  It is a source of vitamin C and other antioxidants that are shown to neutralize free radicals.  Macro Kelp consists of 16 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.  This helps regulate cellular growth, wound healing, muscle development, organ function, and a wide range of other bodily processes that require proteins.”[6]

Seaweeds like Macro Kelp broaden our dietary choices and create new avenues to enjoy food and maintain a healthy diet.  When we combine our joy of cooking and eating with ingredient choices that can truly support socio-economic opportunities and conservation that regenerate and create a healthier planet, then everyone wins. And that is symbiosis.

[1] “5 Reasons to Protect Kelp, the West Coast’s Powerhouse Marine Algae”, PEW Foundation, May 27,2020, Browning, Jennifer, (https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/05/27/5-reasons-to-protect-kelp-the-west-coasts-powerhouse-marine-algae)

[2] Pacific Seaweeds A Guide to Common Seaweeds of the West Coast, Harbour Publishing (2000), Druehl, Louis D. and Clarkston, Bridgette E. at p.13.

[3] Korean Seaweed Soup (Miyeok Guk) (https://mykoreankitchen.com/korean-seaweed-soup-miyeok-guk/

[4] What is Umami? (https://www.ajinomoto.com/aboutus/umami/5-facts).

[5] “Facts about Giant Kelp”, Health Benefits times.com.

[6] Ibid.

David Parker is CEO and Founder of Ocean Regenerative Aquaculture, Inc. “ORA”.  ORA produces dried Macrocystis under a licensing agreement with Canadian Kelp Resources and distributes it’s food products through Organic Ocean.  ORA is also developing seaweed amendments and extracts that help regenerate soil and support plant health and replace carbon back into soil. Reach us at Oceanregenerative.com.