Can innovation unlock the potential of seaweed in the UK?
In May 2022, Innovate UK KTN brought the UK seaweed industry together to discuss challenges and opportunities linked to seaweed and to drive collaboration and innovation in the sector. 294 people joined us online to hear from our excellent speakers including farmers, processors, academics and businesses.
Our keynote speaker Vincent Doumiezel (Senior Advisor, United Nations Global Compact) gave a thought-provoking opening focusing on the need and drive for growth of this developing industry. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet and in the next 50 years, we will have to produce as much food as has been produced over the last 10,000 years. Vincent shared his view that this isn’t going to be possible if we rely on current land based farming of crops and livestock alone. The oceans cover over 70% of the planet but contribute only 2% of the food we eat. Vincent said that seaweed could be the greatest untapped resource we have.
Tapping into a growing market
Seaweed can be used to produce an extensive number of products. It includes not only food for humans (such as Nori for sushi, Wakame for salads and carrageenan used to thicken foods) but also bio-fertilizer and biostimulants (which could be used to replace pesticides), textile fibres and many more. Both Notpla and Oceanium were represented at the event and told us about their innovative bio-packaging products.
There is also a growing area of research into reducing methane emissions from livestock by feeding them seaweed, Professor Sharon Huws from Queen’s University Belfast explained on the day. The demand for seaweed has never been greater but the UK is currently unable to meet this demand.
Many of our speakers mentioned that the majority of seaweed grown around the world comes from Asia, where currently 36 million tonnes of seaweed is grown annually, producing $15 billion of revenue and employing 8 million people. In the UK, seaweed related businesses have more than doubled since 2016 but we are still way behind other parts of the world and there are many challenges and barriers to overcome for the UK sector to thrive
Challenges facing the sector
Kyla Orr, a seaweed farmer from Kelpcrofting, introduced the challenges that farmers are facing as they try to scale up production. Licensing, seeding (costs and methods), vessel size, weather, labour constraints, energy efficient processing and supply chain logistics are all problems that seaweed farmers are currently up against. Often, when harvesting seaweed, there is only a short weather window and huge volumes of seaweed come ashore, needing to be processed straight away or they can quickly degrade.
There is a major lack of energy efficient primary processing facilities available to stabilise the seaweed and investment is needed. Other solutions to some of the issues include shared harvesting vessels and collaboration with the inshore fishing fleet. Partnering and sharing knowledge with other industries such as waste processing, seafood industries and engineering would further enhance the seaweed industry’s ability to overcome these challenges.
The way forward
In order for the UK seaweed industry to develop and scale up to its full potential, there will need to be a focus on innovation, further education, research, investment, collaboration and knowledge transfer. Organisations like the Seaweed Academy at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban and the Algae Innovation Platform can provide a shared community to foster cross-sector collaboration and help to drive innovation within the industry. It is important that this new sector learns from mistakes made in agriculture and that the industry grows in a sustainable way. Regulation and policy will be an important part of getting this right the first time. A National Strategy for Growth, set by the Government, would be a step in the right direction. It would help address target markets and methods as well as overcome supply chain bottlenecks.
With such a variety of challenges facing the sector, innovation will need to be key as the industry moves forward. Currently the industry is limited by high cost of production, including energy intensive drying and rising fuel costs. Innovative solutions focusing on these problems, and other technological advances such as automation of seeding and harvesting, improvements in genetic techniques and the use of existing innovations from renewable energy, should help to address some of the issues and enable the seaweed sector in the UK to expand.
There are around 12,000 species of seaweed known globally but we currently only have the ability to cultivate about 10 to 20 of them. There is such huge potential for this industry to help feed the world with safe and sustainable food, whilst mitigating climate change, combating poverty and restoring biodiversity. Collaboration between the seaweed community, policy makers, regulators and innovators will enable the UK to unleash the potential of seaweed and contribute to helping both people and the planet, now and into the future.
If you are working on an innovative project around seaweed and would like support to fast-track your innovation, get in touch with our aquaculture expert, Caroline Griffin, who led on the UK seaweed event.