A future for seaweed farming in Europe

Seaweed production has boomed. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, between 2005 and 2015 seaweed production volumes doubled, surpassing 30 million tonnes annually. It is a business worth more than €5.5bn worldwide. But still the majority of seaweed cultivation occurs within Asia, where seaweed farming is long-established, but is generally labour-intensive. In order for the seaweed farming sector to be economical and therefore grow in Europe, a lot of progress needs to be made into mechanisation and upscaling. Seaweed has been underexploited in Europe due to the challenges of expanding seaweed biomass production: costs need to be reduced, scales of production need to be increased, quality improved, and seaweed biomass needs to be successfully refined into multiple useful products. If these issues can be addressed, seaweed biomass production could become more economically and environmentally sustainable.

The Horizon 2020 Blue Growth project GENIALG is the first industry-driven project bringing together pioneering companies in large-scale integrated European biorefineries and experts in seaweed cultivation, genetics and metabolomics to boost the seaweed industry. GENIALG partner SINTEF is researching new technologies to streamline seaweed farming. “Now most of the seaweed is used for food, but in the future, we want to use it for fish feed, fertilisers and biogas. We need large volumes, and we need to produce it much faster,” says research scientist Silje Forbord. SINTEF have developed prototype machines such as the “seaweed spinner” which automatically wraps spools of seedling-carrying threads onto lines, so that they are ready for deployment at sea. Another concept still in development is SPoke (Standardised Production of Kelp), which consists of circular farm modules where seaweed grows from lines radiating outwards. It is designed so that a robot can move along the wheel-like spokes, either attaching threads bearing juvenile seaweed or harvesting it, but more investment is needed.

In a series of ponds and tanks in northern Portugal, another GENIALG partner, ALGAplus, is farming seaweed in a land based system! Managing Director Helena Abreu believes it can be advantageous over farming offshore, she explains, “It’s a much more controlled environment, we maintain the temperature and everything inside the tanks, and we have year-round production”. ALGAplus produces small, high-value seaweeds for food companies, cosmetic manufacturers as well as high-end restaurants.

Seawater from a coastal lagoon flows into their fishponds. This water is then pumped through a filtration system into tanks of growing seaweed. They also have a hatchery breeding the seedlings. ALGAplus had to innovate from scratch. These waters are rich in nitrogen, which the seaweed takes up, like it does in its natural environment. “We don’t need to use any additives or fertilisers. We use water from the fishponds to grow our seaweed,” Helena explains. She believes availability of land will not be a limiting factor as many former salt works and fish farms could be repurposed. Onshore seaweed farming currently takes place in Canada and South Africa too. But there are still some challenges to be overcome. “The main bottleneck is energy cost. Working with tanks you need pumping and aeration to keep the water moving,” says Helena. But she is certain that the seaweed market will continue to grow. “It’s a huge trend,” she says. “Every year there’s more and more companies. There are newcomers in all steps of the value chain.”

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