Shifting attitudes and new tech have made Europe’s seaweed sector ripe for dramatic expansion, writes Jason Holland.
Over the past decade or so, and on a fairly regular basis, seaweed has been touted as the next big superfood for the European market. Rich in minerals and vitamins and high in protein, amino and fatty acids, many of these microalgae boast a nutritional profile well suited to all those people across the bloc wanting to adhere to healthy diets and lifestyles. Indeed, as a food, they have enjoyed some incremental success in recent years, particularly through their application in Asian-style cuisine, but a new report shows that there’s a lot more to seaweed than a good food choice, and also so much more that its production can bring to Europe economically and environmentally.
According to “Hidden Champion of the Ocean: Seaweed as a Growth Engine for a Sustainable European Future” a dynamic and expanded seaweed industry could be worth as much as €9.3 billion (US$11 billion) by 2030 to the region. Compiled by the Seaweed for Europe Coalition, which is headed by certified B corporation Systemiq and co-chaired by former EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, Maren Hjorth Bauer (Founder of Fynd Ocean Ventures), and Vidar Helgesen (the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Special Envoy for the Ocean), the report also estimates that in this expansion process, some 115,000 new jobs could be created. If realised, that would make seaweed production a larger employer than Europe’s entire aquaculture sector.
Aside from feeding humans and also livestock through animal feeds, the report highlights that technological advancements have led seaweed to be increasingly used across the cosmetics, bio-packaging, and pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries. It also points to possible future applications in sectors such as biofuels, textiles and green construction materials.
Adrien Vincent, Programme Director at Seaweed for Europe and Ocean Lead at Systemiq, told World Fishing & Aquaculture that the sector is building up a real head of steam, with more and more discussions ongoing about the potential contribution and value of seaweed to European society, and more players and initiatives coming to the fore.
“The realisation has come that seaweed offers much more than a sustainable food source for the European population. While that used to be the mindset, we are seeing its increased application across so many different sectors and markets. Perceptions are changing; people are taking notice of seaweed – they can see that it brings important new solutions.”
Adrien Vincent explained that the coalition feels that conditions are sufficiently ripe to support the expansion of Europe’s seaweed farming industry.
The demand for high-quality, traceable seaweed is growing across the market, while the emergence of dynamic technology, and the growing appetite for innovation across Europe is making it an increasingly attractive landscape, he said, adding that seaweed production is also closely aligned with the EU Green Deal agenda.
Within the coalition’s European seaweed vision for the year 2030, animal feed supplements are projected to constitute the largest business segment, with a value of more than €2.2 billion (US$ 2.6 billion). It anticipates that this growth would be principally driven by the livestock feed additive sector (cattle, swine and poultry) on account of the health and yield benefits that seaweed supplements can offer these meat production systems.
The European food segment, meanwhile, is forecast to reach as much as €2.1 billion (US$2.5 billion) in the next ten years, driven by the two sub-segments of plant proteins and directly consumable seaweeds. Next, and in line with technological advances in processing and expected EU policy, the report suggests that the 2030 European market for seaweed-based bio-stimulants (plant growth enhancers) could eventually be worth €1.8 billion (US$ 2.1 billion).
If a poster child were required, Europe need not look any further than Asia, which today represents 99% of the world’s seaweed production. Nevertheless, the coalition estimates that with the right combination of investment, technology and policy, seaweed grown in Europe could account for around 30% of the European market in just ten years’ time. This would entail its output increasing from its current 300,000 tonnes to about 8 million tonnes, with domestic production alone worth €2.7 billion (US$3.2 billion).
Beyond seaweed’s lucrative application across an ever-growing number of areas, the report outlines the multiple environmental benefits associated with growing these sea plants. As well as not requiring any freshwater, fertiliser or external inputs, seaweed farming contributes to overall ocean health by addressing acidification, while also preserving biodiversity through the provision of habitats and food for fish and other marine life.
At the aforementioned scale, production could remove up to 20,000 tonnes of nitrogen and 2000 tonnes of phosphorus from European waters annually. The coalition also calculates that an expanded European seaweed industry could offset greenhouse gas emissions of up to 800,000 Europeans per year in 2030.
Leveraging core strengths such as quality, traceability and innovation would provide a strong platform for European producers to grow and take a greater share of the domestic market. This has hooked the interest of policymakers, Adrien Vincent commented.
“DG MARE tells us that seaweed is definitely on their radar. At high levels, there is much more thinking about this sector – both seaweed and land-based microalgae production – and its potential. We need to capitalise on this. For example, creating a strong voice for the industry so that it can better connect with European initiatives like the Farm to Fork Strategy,” he said.
While producing significantly larger volumes doesn’t pose too much of a physical challenge – the continent’s nutrient-rich, cold waters are well suited for seaweed production, the report acknowledges that the growth of Europe’s seaweed sector has to-date largely been hindered by such key challenges as complex licensing processes, a lack of cost-efficient technologies, industry infrastructures and value chain integration, as well as limited investment.
To resolve these barriers and to create the necessary pre-conditions for growth, Seaweed for Europe has compiled a 2020/2021 action programme, focusing on the following:
- Optimise seaweed farms licensing process
- Attract public and private investors to the seaweed space
- Create a strong and collaborative stakeholder network
- Establish robust safety standards and comprehensive certification system
- Raise awareness on the benefits and potential of seaweed
- Leverage science to accelerate innovation
It has also identified that generating up to 8.3 million tonnes of European fresh-weight seaweed would require a farming space of some 27,300 hectares, comprising 26,300 hectares of marine farms and 1000 hectares of onshore systems.
Previously, such fundamental enablers, particularly those relating licensing, have been where such bold intentions have become derailed. The EU’s aquaculture industry, for example, has long-stagnated because of all the regulatory red tape that has blocked new licensing, access to appropriate waters, and subsequent investment.
But while there are parallels to be drawn between the two industries, particularly in terms of water access and licensing, Vincent believes that seaweed’s publicly greener perception probably stands it in better stead than fish farming.
“It doesn’t have to answer questions about fish escapes, the use of forage fish in feeds, waste etc. that make getting fish farming licenses a nightmare all over Europe. Seaweed production doesn’t have all those environmental challenges. Seaweed is beneficial to the ecosystem and the environment as a whole – that message is out there, so our narrative is very different from aquaculture.”
That said, opportunities to explore synergies with aquaculture could increasingly arise, for instance, through sector coupling in the form of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture or multi-use scenarios. There is the potential for seaweed aquaculture to be integrated with fish and shellfish farms, leveraging existing licences and infrastructure, and capitalising on the symbiotic relationships between plant and fish, the report suggests.
For now, positive dialogue with European policymakers is ongoing. At the same time, the coalition and its report have received the support of Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson, and European Commissioner for Science & Research and for the Environment Janez Potočnik to name but a few.
But for European seaweed farming to really start to bear fruit and live up to its full potential, the focus must be on progressing the action programme’s aforementioned priority areas, insists Vincent.
“It’s crucial that these are all addressed at the same time. Tackling the licensing process before courting investors or leveraging new technologies will slow all that positive momentum. This is an opportunity not to be missed,” he said.