Entrepreneurs are hailing seaweed as a potential “miracle crop.” Could seaweed farming help lift coastal communities out of poverty?
Editor’s Note: Earth Island Institute board member and journalist Kenneth Brower, who writes often about the oceans, took issue with this recent feature story. See a critique here.
Rain clouds moved in as Iain Neish and I pulled up to the site of his once-future seaweed farm along the flat, winding coast of Takalar Regency in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi. It was here, on this small patch of the seashore, that Neish and Hariadi Adnan, an Indonesian researcher, started their work to revolutionize the Southeast Asian nation’s seaweed industry. We found Adnan playing solitaire on a computer inside the concrete warehouse that doubles as his home. He’d been living there for the past two months, experimenting with various strands of seaweed in hopes of finding the one most suitable for the local waters, a tedious process of trial and error. Out on the water, 300 feet from the shore, a wooden stake marked a test patch he had planted.
There had been some setbacks to the experiments. Adnan, whose sunbaked skin accentuates his white, windblown hair, paused his game to step out and show Neish the damage from a recent storm. The pounding waves had uprooted trees and toppled a newly built seawall, scattering branches and bricks across the beach. The warehouse and a nearby mosque, the only other building on the property, were left unscathed. There was a more serious problem, however. The storm also damaged the seaweed, causing it to bend and break in the water.
Neish hopes growing it in tube nets – the so-called “chorizo method,” pioneered by Mexican aquaculturists – will help prevent such damage in the future. “It’s pretty much like stuffing a sausage,” Neish says. He plans to take the chorizo process a few steps further. Engineers in India have designed a first-of-its kind sea combine that mechanically plants and harvests seaweed in tube nets. Once it’s available for sale, Neish plans to get one of his own.
Sixty-eight-year-old Neish exudes a certain out-of-placeness in Indonesia. Never mind his fluent Bahasa, and Indonesian wife. As a white Canadian, his bushy grey beard and blue eyes guarantee him stares almost everywhere he goes. So too, do the tattoos covering his upper arms. He got his first one, a now-faded green clover, in 1961. He was 15 years old and living in Halifax. “Back then only sailors and convicts got tattoos,” he tells me. “I guess I wanted to see what it was like.” But it is another tattoo that catches my attention: a spindly patch of green seaweed on his right shoulder. Neish has dedicated most of his life to seaweed. It’s only fitting that he has it inked on his arm – and most recently, his chest. “This old body?” he asks. “Might as well use it to tell history.”
Neish has a lot of history to tell, certainly more than he could fit on his body. That history is what led me to meet him in South Sulawesi last year, during the middle of rainy season. South Sulawesi spans the island of Sulawesi’s southern peninsula, one of four spindly arms that give the island the appearance of a warped pinwheel. The province is the heart of the Indonesia’s seaweed industry, and Takalar Regency, where Neish’s farm is located, grows nearly a quarter of South Sulawesi’s seaweed crop.
Neish began working with seaweed in the 1960s. Back then he harvested wild beds off the North Atlantic coast to help pay his way through college. “I never got out of it,” he says, even after he graduated from the University of British Columbia with a PhD in biology. In 1974, he moved to Indonesia as part of a team hired to search for undiscovered seaweed stocks. Rising global demand for carrageenan, a common food additive extracted from various strands of red seaweed, was quickly outpacing the ocean’s natural supply. That same year, researchers in the Philippines introduced commercial-scale seaweed farming. Soon after, Neish explains, producers had “more seaweed than they knew what to do with.”
A few years later, the development of semi-refined carrageenan – a cheap and easy-to-make powder is safe for human consumption – helped launch the modern seaweed industry. Estimates vary, but experts say carrageenan, which is used as a texturizer in processed meats and as a thickener and stabilizer in dairy products, is used in 350 to 500 consumer products. Processed foods make up the bulk of the market, but carrageenan can also be found in toothpaste, shampoo, pharmaceuticals, and pet food.
Driven by the rising demand for processed foods across the world, global production of red seaweed increased from 2 million wet tons in 2000 to almost 9 million wet tons in 2010. Carrageenan accounted for 67 percent of that growth; nori, the popular red seaweed found in sushi, accounted for about 9 percent, according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Analysts predict the hydrocolloid market – which comprises carrageenan and similar products that form a gel in the presence of water – will reach $7.9 billion by 2019. Western Europe and North America have historically been the largest markets for carrageenan exports. But now new markets are opening up as the middle classes in developing countries continue to grow, and with them, the demand for processed foods. China imported 57 percent of the global carrageenan seaweed supply in 2011, more than twice as much as it imported a decade earlier. Demand is also rising in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The future of red seaweed production, however, isn’t limited to carrageenan. In fact, seaweeds’ use in processed foods and beauty products may soon be an afterthought.
The Western culinary world is showing a growing interest in cooking with nutrient-rich seaweeds like nori, wakame, kombu, dulse, and kelp, which have long been staples in many Asian diets. The Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, Maine is trying to create diversity in edible seaweed crops – sometimes rebranded as “sea vegetables” – by growing different varieties. Seaweed farms are cropping up in some parts of the North American coast.
Seaweed’s ecologically friendly qualities have led scientists across the world on a fervent search for innovative ways of unlocking its potential. The possibilities are enormous. It can be used as a bio-stimulant on crops, and even as a biofuel. In the words of Indroyono Soesilo, a former head of the FAO’s fisheries and aquaculture division and now an official in Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs, “Seaweed is like a miracle.”
As it exists today, the Indonesian seaweed industry is inextricably tied to the global demand for carrageenan. But Neish warns that the market is approaching a plateau, especially in the West, a problem that he blames on a lack of innovation. A 2010 study found that it was only emerging markets like China – in the absence of new applications – that were driving the industry’s growth. Aside from carrageenan, “there have been no new products developed for 30 years,” Neish says. He compares the state of the carrageenan industry to the early electronics industry in Japan and Taiwan, when manufacturers were more interested in copying one another than inventing new products. “We’re reaching the point where innovation has to kick in,” he says. Otherwise, the seaweed industry will collapse. And that, he says, would be disastrous for countries like Indonesia where seaweed is the mainstay of the aquaculture industry.
Seaweed accounts for half of Indonesia’s aquaculture output. The country started commercial seaweed farming in the mid-1980s. In 2008, it overtook the Philippines as the world’s largest producer of cottonii, one of the world’s most in-demand strains of red seaweed from which carrageenan is made. In 2012, Indonesian seaweed exports were worth $178 million, enough to supply 48 percent of the world’s carrageenan market.
Not only is seaweed farming easier and cheaper than fishing, it’s also more ecologically sustainable. Unlike, say, salmon farming, it doesn’t require any feedstock inputs, which have to be produced somewhere and somehow. Unlike a lot of industrial-scale shrimp production, seaweed growing leaves shoreline ecosystems intact. Last year, the FAO reported that 57 percent of wild fish stocks in the oceans were fully exploited and 30 percent were overexploited. Overfishing – in addition to climate change – has been especially destructive to the Coral Triangle, the global epicenter of marine biodiversity that surrounds the eastern half of Indonesia. Tuna and other tropical fish in the waters around the country have been among the hardest hit. A 2012 study found that warmer and more acidic seawater could reduce Indonesian fish catches by an average of 20 percent, and up to 50 percent in some areas.
Seaweed cultivation might also be able to mitigate the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon, helping to curb ocean acidification. Charlie Yarish, a seaweed researcher at the University of Connecticut, says it could also improve the health of coastal environments by capturing toxic chemicals such as nitrogen from sewage and agricultural runoff. Yet large-scale seaweed farming isn’t without risks. Yarish is especially wary of monocultures, which can lower a plant’s genetic diversity and make it more susceptible to pathogens. He warns too, of seaweed becoming an invasive species if introduced into vulnerable, unfit ecosystems. “If it’s practiced properly, there’s a lot of great potential,” he says.
In addition to being more environmentally friendly than most forms of fishing, seaweed has also attracted Indonesian leaders’ attention because it offers a way to address one of the country’s most intractable problems: coastal poverty. About 60 percent of the 250 million people in Indonesia live along the nation’s coasts. Despite the country’s steady economic growth – projected at 5.8 percent for 2015 by the Asian Development Bank – coastal poverty is endemic across the archipelago. Seaweed farming alone isn’t enough to fix the problem, but as Slamet Soebjakto, the director general of aquaculture for Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, says, it could make a significant dent.
I saw evidence of seaweed’s potential all along South Sulawesi’s western coast. Along the shallow waters of the coastline stretch miles of wooden stakes and plastic water bottles – used as buoys – that mark hundreds of seaweed farms. Many of the smaller farms are family owned and operated; the larger ones are co-ops. In the shade underneath stilt houses along the coast, women and children as young as five years old tie seaweed cuttings to 130-foot-long blue polypropylene lines. Once the lines are prepared, men load them into outrigger canoes and haul them up to a half-mile off the shore. There they tie them to horizontal ropes that hang between plastic water bottles and lower them into the water. After about 45 days, the men row back out to sea to harvest the plants. They drape the fresh seaweed over bamboo poles or throw it into wicker baskets and carry it ashore. Some of it goes into large piles to be used for a new round of propagation. The rest goes onto plastic tarps and raised bamboo platforms to dry in the tropical sun in preparation for market. Then they repeat the process. Labor intensive, yes. But for the most part it’s really that simple.
Seaweed dominates the economy in Puntondo, a coastal village near Makassar. One afternoon there I met three generations of seaweed farmers. Sunni Luma, a soft-spoken 24-year-old mother, crouched over a pile of seaweed as she tied cuttings to a line. Her mother did the same nearby while her 10-year-old nephew sorted seaweed from a fresh batch. Selli, Luma’s one-year-old daughter, sat next to her on a wooden stool. She watched her mother work with an infants’ intensity. In a few years she would be old enough to help.
Luma says that she will send her daughter to school – Selli has an older sister in the first grade – but that she expects her to help on the family farm, too. After all, Luma had done the same work for nearly 20 years. Without access to a bank, she invests her money in gold jewelry. Both she and Selli are wearing gold earrings the day I visit Puntondo. An oversized gold bracelet dangles from Selli’s wrist. Through a translator I ask Luma what she likes about seaweed farming. “The money is good,” she says as she continues her work.
Seaweed farming provides livelihoods to thousands of families like Luma’s, in some of the most impoverished and far-flung regions of Indonesia. The average family farm can make upwards of $5,000 a year, well above the country’s per-capita income of $3,580. Seaweed farmers often have money to spare after buying necessities such as rice and clothes. Some put it away for their children’s education. Others buy motorbikes or renovate their houses. The most pious save it for the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that remains far too expensive for the majority of Indonesians.
Neish hopes that, in the future, a larger section of the country’s coastal populace will be able to reap the benefits of this low-cost aquaculture. And he sees an opportunity in what has long been one of his biggest frustrations with the industry. Only 23 percent of the harvested cottonii, the most popular red seaweed grown in Indonesia, is used to make carrageenan. Manufacturers discard the rest of the plant as bio-waste. “It’s like throwing out orange juice and only using the peel to make citrus oil,” Neish says. “In the seaweed industry we throw away the juice, and the juice is probably worth more.” That’s because the nutrient-rich juice can be used in as a bio-stimulant on crops. His efforts to market seaweed as a crop fertilizer represent the culmination of more than 40 years of work. It’s his holy grail, one that he’s presented at conferences and outlined in reports for years. Neish is evangelical when it comes to seaweed’s potential as a fertilizer. It’s not a bad bet, given that the global market for bio-stimulants is projected to increase 12 percent annually and exceed $2.2 billion by 2018.
Neish’s goal was to plant 25 acres of seaweed, ten times more than the average farm in South Sulawesi. But last September he switched his main farming operation to the province of East Nusa Tenggara after he received Australian aid money to work with farmers off the coast of East Flores. He’s since partnered with an Indonesian nonprofit organization that has helped him recruit more than 30 communities in the region. His immediate aim is to establish $1 million in annual cash flow – and that’s just from selling seaweed on the carrageenan market. Once he refines his juicing process, he expects revenues to soar. In the short-term, Neish is working to incorporate local seaweed farmers into his business. He’s providing them with supplies and training in return for the seaweed they grow, which he’ll then process and market.
Neish’s ultimate goal is to establish a factory near the farm to turn seaweed juice extracts into bio-stimulants. For the last three-and-a-half years, he has worked with Sea6 Energy, a biotechnology start-up in Bangalore, India, to develop technology for doing just that. Shrikumar Suryanarayan, the CEO of Sea6, shares many of Neish’s frustrations with the seaweed industry, which he considers stuck “in the Stone Age.” Sea6 Energy’s goal is to mechanize the industry and make it comparable to contemporary land-based agriculture. Over the last five years, the company’s team of engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology – the MIT of India – has developed industrial farming methods, including a sea combine, that allow seaweed to be grown virtually anywhere in the ocean. “What we’ve done is we’ve created the equivalent of land on the sea,” Suryanarayan says. “I really feel this is the next frontier of agriculture.”
Seaweed bio-stimulants are just a stepping-stone to a product with even greater potential: seaweed biofuel. It’s a massive leap from one to the other, but ultimately it’s where seaweed experts see the industry heading. Among the biggest hurdles is getting farming up to scale. Huge quantities of seaweed are needed to lower prices and make biofuel financially feasible. But after talking with Neish and Suryanarayan, it seems more a question of “how soon” rather than “if.”
“We’ve stopped saying ‘wow’ about this,” Suryanarayan tells me. He has bold predictions about the implications of what lies ahead: from capturing carbon emissions and reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, to conserving water used in agriculture. All is possible with seaweed biofuel, he insists. “The reason why biofuel is difficult and such a controversial subject is because the biomass that is needed to make fuel competes with the land area that’s used for agriculture and food, so you get this food versus fuel debate,” Suryanarayan says. “But if you could do agriculture in the sea, that would completely change the equation, because there is so much area out there in the sea.”
Suryanarayan and Neish aren’t the only ones who’ve come to that conclusion. The prospect of a sustainable biofuel that can displace fossil fuels without hampering food production has led to millions of dollars in research and development. Scientists from Norway to Chile are on the hunt for the most productive, cost-effective ways to turn seaweed into energy. Dominick Mendola, a marine biotechnology engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, calls it “the biomass of the future.” He predicts that in five years the seaweed industry will be large enough to compete with corn and sugarcane biofuels. The key to getting there is to gradually expand production by selling products such as seaweed crop fertilizer. “Fuel is so damn cheap,” Mendola says. “All these bio-products are going to be needed to underpin the economics of getting to scale for biofuels.”
I visit Neish at his house in Makassar the morning after our trip to Takalar. He is wearing gray cotton shorts and a matching gray tank top that leaves his tattoos fully exposed. His six-year-old daughter, Eva, has just woken up and is getting ready for school, while Dian, his wife, works in the kitchen. The Disney Channel plays on a small TV in the corner of the sparsely furnished living room.
Seaweed is ubiquitous in the family’s home. Six plastic trays filled with the seaweed Neish has bought in Takalar sit on a concrete wall in front of the house. Neish sprays the seaweed with an alkaline solution every few minutes while it dries in the sunlight. He is trying to determine the right amount needed to eliminate the seaweed’s color and odor, part of an experiment he is doing for a carrageenan manufacturer near Jakarta.
Inside the house, Neish shows me the room he uses as his laboratory. Scales and glass beakers crowd a pair of plastic card tables near the window. A toolbox and other equipment are scattered across a sheet-less mattress. Green plastic jugs filled with concentrated seaweed juice line the floor. Neish unscrews the cap on one and holds it to my nose. It smells like rotten eggs. “A lot of fertilizers smell bad,” he says as he recaps the jug. Neish will soon fly the juice to Bangalore for testing. (At the time he was making the 14-hour round-trip with a new batch every other month.)
We walk back into the living room and sit near the front door. Once again Neish walks me through his vision for the future of the Indonesian seaweed industry. He speaks with confidence, as if his predictions are all but foregone conclusions. But he also seems anxious. Having spent half a century in the world of seaweed, Neish knows what the industry is capable of. He just wants to live long enough to see it reach its full potential.
“I’m very happy,” Neish says. “I think I’m finally getting somewhere after all these years.”
Michael Holtz, the Saikowski Fellow at The Christian Science Monitor, covers international news and has reported frequently from Southeast Asia.