Seaweed – a shortcut to sustainable food production?

On the Faroe Islands, the World Wide Fund for Nature has invested in a large “seaweed farm”, while in Greenland, a research team has been investigating the possibilities of cultivating and using seaweed as a source of food. Seaweed could potentially become the new major sustainable super food. However, it requires that it is handled correctly, says Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen, professor at the DTU Food Institute.

Seaweed pesto. Crisp bread with seaweed. Dried seaweed in salads and soups. Seaweed has many potential uses. In addition, it is a food that can help reduce the pressure on nature in the Arctic region, according to professor Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen. Along with her research team, she completed a PhD project on Greenlandic seaweed in 2021.

“If handled correctly, seaweed is a potentially sustainable food source. It contains a lot of essential nutrients and can be produced and harvested locally. It can be an alternative to, for example, the imported spinach that is available in local supermarkets in Greenland.” 

The research team has specifically investigated seaweed as a food source – including the availability of seaweed in Greenland and the contents of different types of seaweed – but there are also a number of other things that can be extracted from seaweed, explains Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen.

“Many of the thickeners used in food production can be extracted from seaweed. There are also a number of antioxidants in seaweed. It can also be used as a fertilizer and feed for livestock. ”

New processing methods

According to Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen, the conditions are right for seaweed production to gain a foothold in Greenland.

“Greenland has a huge coastal and sea area, and there are many opportunities to cultivate seaweed. A large number of small Greenlandic towns are located in areas where there are no sources of pollution and where the water is completely clean. It would make sense to produce seaweed here.”

Even if you initiate seaweed production in Greenland, there are a number of factors that need to be put in place beforehand. One of the challenges with seaweed is that, like other agricultural products, it must be processed for preservation purposes. This can be particularly challenging in small Greenlandic towns and other places in the Arctic, where infrastructure is limited, explains Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen.

“The real challenge begins once you have raised the lines of seaweed out of the sea. How do we process the seaweed in a sustainable way? In many small communities in Greenland, people depend on oil to provide electricity. If you choose to dry the seaweed with a large fan heater, it is suddenly less sustainable.”

And it is precisely this issue of processing methods that DTU’s research group has been helping to investigate.

“One of the things we have been investigating is how long we can leave the seaweed between harvesting and processing before it begins to rot. We have conducted various processing experiments and analysed different methods that can be used to quickly stabilise the seaweed so that it does not spoil.”

Faroese seaweed success

Seaweed as a source of food is not a new concept in the Arctic and subarctic regions, but in recent years there has been a renewed focus on this “old” natural product.

“Among other things, it is an old Inuit tradition to eat seaweed. For many years, the tradition had been abandoned by most people, but now seaweed is on its way back, ”says Lisbeth Truelstrup Hansen.

And it is not only in Greenland that seaweed has experienced a renaissance. Further east, the Faroese company Ocean Rainforest has had seaweed on its radar for some time. The company grows more than 200 tonnes of seaweed annually in a Faroese fjord, and it is used for the production of food and feed, as well as for the cosmetics industry. A large capital injection from the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2020 has made it possible to increase the production of seaweed considerably.

Elsewhere in the Faroe Islands, seaweed is also on the menu of Michelin-starred restaurant KOKS. Here, chef Poul Andrias Ziska has created a culinary universe based on local ingredients.

“We opened the restaurant in 2011 and one of the purposes was to focus on the ingredients we have available in the Faroe Islands. Seaweed is one of the ingredients we often use in our dishes, and one which is always available here, ”says the chef.

Balance with nature

Whether the freshly harvested seaweed ends up on KOKS’ gourmet menu or in the fridges of a Greenlandic supermarket, there are many indications that seaweed production can contribute to more sustainable food production. When the World Wide Fund for Nature chose to support Faroese seaweed farming, one of their arguments was that seaweed production “could move borders and improve biodiversity in the sea.” In a statement to The Faroese News Bureau (FOnyhedsbureau) from 2020, the director of the World Wildlife Fund in the USA, Carter Roberts, continued:

“We are excited to be a part of this project because we believe that seaweed production is the way to go to reduce pressure on nature and to create a better balance with nature.”

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