Seaweeds are seen as important future feedstock for Europe, providing biomass for food, feed, and other applications. Entrepreneurs, environmental organizations, and policy-makers are enthusiastic and aim to increase European seaweed production. The authors of the latest Editor's Choice, Towards Sustainable European Seaweed Value Chains: A Triple P Perspective, argue that pursuing large-scale seaweed production can lead to a focus on linear solutions in which current practices are intensified to optimize yields, reduce cost price, and increase efforts to change consumer behaviour. They argue that the focus needs to be on nature-inclusive production systems, producing the right amount of the right seaweeds based on the carrying capacity of the European seas. Seaweeds should become an integral part of the European food system, used for human and animal consumption and to improve terrestrial agricultural production.
Europe is a minor player in a world market that is dominated by Asian producers and processors. According to the FAO, the total production of aquatic plants (dominated by seaweed) was 30 million tonnes in 2016, with China (47.9%) and Indonesia (38.7%) producing the largest volume. In Europe, the preconditions for further development of seaweed value-chains have not all been met. Production costs are high in comparison with non-European producers. Future production and harvesting systems will need to be highly automated to reduce costs. Consumer demand for seaweed products is currently low and dietary changes are not easily realized. The environmental benefits of seaweed compared to other products are not easily quantified, partly due to lack of data but also because comparisons between land-based and sea-based farming systems are inherently difficult.
In response to these challenges, it is often argued that upscaling is needed. The underlying assumption is that more production, more research, and more demand will resolve these challenges. However, the seaweed sector must avoid developing along the “old" economic way of cost leadership but by way of the “new" circular economy. Upscaling of production and competition with other producers and products impacts the marine environment and creates unknown environmental risks. It can also result in lower prices paid for raw material if supply exceeds demand. The future perspective should not be one of large volumes and low prices per se. Instead, seaweed product innovation can be stimulated to develop attractive products for consumers and by-products from processing should be utilized as feed, fertilizer, or bioactive substances.
Read the full paper in ICES Journal of Marine Science.
Laboratory at Algaplus, Ilhavo, Portugal. Photo: Sander vander Burg.