Seaweed Revolution-Vincent Doumeizel
Vincent Doumeizel, author of Seaweed Revolution

Vincent Doumeizel interview: Seaweed can be a game-changer in fight against global warming

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From the icy realms of eternal glaciers to sun-drenched lagoons, from salt-saturated seas to freshwater rivers, seaweed thrives in waters across the globe. Surprisingly, however, we have barely scratched the surface of its cultivation, with only a handful of varieties currently being harnessed. In The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Has Shaped Our Past and Can Save Our Future (Penguin Random House India), Vincent Doumeizel, a renowned ocean expert, dives into the untapped potential of seaweed and its capacity to revolutionize our approach to the environment.

Seaweed holds immense promise, offering a myriad of solutions that can restore balance to our ecosystems. Despite the invaluable role it has played in our history, our modern society has largely overlooked it, focusing primarily on land cultivation. However, with a rapidly growing global population and escalating climate, social, and environmental crises, the time has come to rekindle our connection with this forgotten treasure, writes Doumeizel, Senior Adviser on oceans for the United Nations Global Compact, a non-binding UN pact to get businesses and firms worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation.

In an interview to The Federal, he discusses the key research and development areas necessary to unlock the potential of seaweed as a valuable resource and address the challenges of global warming. He highlights the need to cultivate endemic seaweed species and develop a new generation of marine biologists specializing in seaweed. He also calls for the promotion and education of seaweed’s health benefits to change public perception.

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Doumeizel underscores the importance of protecting these crucial marine ecosystems or ‘sea forests’ which will help restore and preserve the health of our oceans, repair biodiversity and support coastal communities economically. There is a need for collaboration, consistent regulations, and investment in seaweed research and development to fully realize its potential and foster greater understanding and appreciation of its value, he says. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the key research and development areas that need to be prioritized in order to fully unlock the potential of seaweed as a valuable resource and address the pressing challenges of global warming?

Outside of Asia, the science gap is a key challenge. We still don’t know how to cultivate our endemic seaweed. If you live in Canada, but only know how to grow bananas and rice, it’s not going to help you start to farm the lands.  And right now, we only really know how to cultivate the Asian seaweed species and it’s not easy to learn on our own — the ocean is a complex environment, you cannot use pesticides, it depends on nutrients, water quality, etc… There’s a lot of science needed and we need a new generation of marine biologists who are focusing specifically on seaweed in order to build a regenerative ocean permaculture.

Despite the impressive scale of Asia’s seaweed sector — which accounts for 99 percent of global production – processing also still needs to become more sophisticated. At the global level, we all need to be better at developing biorefineries to extract and valorize the various compounds — even in South Asia, they valorize carrageenan, which is one of the compounds, but the remaining 75 percent is waste.

One type of seaweed could produce biostimulants, animal feeds and bioplastics if processed efficiently. It will improve cost efficiency for seaweed, improve resilience of the industry and make the seaweed products more affordable. The products will contribute to decarbonizing the economy, replacing plastics, fertilizers or cutting methane emission from livestock. And in the meantime, seaweed farms will absorb more GHG than any land forest per sq km contributing to mitigate climate change.

How can we ensure that seaweed cultivation is carried out sustainably, minimizing any potential negative impacts on marine biodiversity and ecosystems?

We should share experience first and standardize the best practices. There is also a critical lack of documentation when it comes to the positive impact of seaweed cultivation. We know from experience that it does repair biodiversity in the ocean and increase fish stocks, etc… But this is yet to be properly documented by science.

On the other hand, we must also tell everyone that wild seaweed tides, such as sargassum in the Caribbean, sometimes give seaweed a bad name, which is unfair. Firstly, because these tides relate to wild and unmanaged seaweed. And also because these seaweed tides are not the problem, they are a symptom of the problem — which is the land pollution and industrial agricultural runoffs. These seaweed act like the immune system of the ocean. We should tackle the problem at the source and move to a more regenerative industry.

The Seaweed Revolution-Vincent Doumeizel
The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Has Shaped Our Past and Can Save Our Future (Penguin Random House India), Vincent Doumeizel, translated from French by Charlotte Coombe

Still, we obviously need to establish regulations and guidelines to ensure this cultivation is done properly. For instance, we need to make sure to cultivate endemic species as importing foreign species is a risk of ecosystem disruption. All of this needs to be properly and collectively defined, which is why we have created this Global Seaweed Coalition, now gathering at the UN over 1,000 seaweed stakeholders. There, we can share experience and enforce the needed research and regulations as well as advocate to promote the cultivation and the consumption of seaweed.

How can seaweed contribute to addressing the issues of food scarcity and malnutrition in both human beings and animals?

Seaweed is part of our future. It can feed our population and our animals in a sustainable manner, as well as to support agricultural systems by replacing fertilizers. Seaweed has been used in Chinese medicine and more recently, in Western medicine, so its anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal characteristics are well known, and if that’s not enough of a list for you, seaweed is also analgesic and immunomodulatory. This is the best prebiotics in the world. Also, once dried, seaweed does not need to be kept cold and it retains its extraordinary nutrients over many months.

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During the COVID lockdowns, when some of us were rushing to buy pasta, the Japanese were rushing to buy dried seaweed. A nutritious product with a long shelf life and no need for a cold chain is very good news both for emerging economies and for our climate…. The benefits are the same for humans and animals. It sounds more logical to feed salmon with local seaweed rich in protein instead of GMO soymeal which has deforested Amazon forest and travelled half of the world… Building a real “permaculture” in the ocean is part of our ambition. Seaweed can also be beneficial for terrestrial animals.

In his text written in 50 BC, Commentaries, Julius Caesar recounts how he won a decisive battle in northern Africa by feeding his starving horses on dried seaweed, for lack of grain. For centuries, seaweed has been used to feed animals, and farmers have regularly testified to its positive effects. Nowadays, thanks to scientific advances, we can better characterize the benefits of seaweed for animals and extract specific compounds from them to enhance the expected effects. Using seaweed as animal feed will boost the animal immune system in order to reduce the need for antibiotics (and hence reduce the risk for anti-bioresistance in our population).

Seaweed will also increase animal welfare and cut off methane emission by livestock. For a specific red seaweed, it can decrease this emission by 90%. Livestock greenhouse-gas emissions represent 5% of global emissions… the same as worldwide emissions from cars. So — think about it — adding 40 g a day of a specific red seaweed in cows’ diets would have an impact on climate change equivalent to stopping all cars on the planet overnight…

In what ways can seaweed serve as a viable alternative to plastic and fertilizers, and what steps need to be taken to encourage its adoption on a large scale?

Seaweed could soon replace plastic, which is a phenomenal challenge. Plastic is toxic and takes more than 700 years on average to degrade. Its use in food, textiles, construction, furniture and everything around us is increasing and has fuelled much of our economic growth. Over the past 20 years, the world has consumed more plastic than in the previous fifty years. In addition, this material emits over 60 million tonnes of CO2 in its entire life cycle and, therefore, contributes significantly to global warming. We have to remember that plastic is made of dead algaes that have sedimented in soils over millions of years.

We have built our progress on dead seaweed. Let’s try them alive now! At least, it will be regenerative! More than 30 companies in the world are working to replace plastic with seaweed-based packaging that are compostable and biodegradable. One of them (Notpla) was awarded last year by Prince William with the prestigious and very competitive Earthshot price. They are producing edible packaging and have replaced all plastic glasses during the last marathon in London. Seaweed is proven to be much better than many other grain-based alternatives that require fresh water and usually pesticides. Unlike PLA, a bioplastic synthesized from cornstarch, seaweed-based material biodegrades in nature within a few days without needing industrial composting conditions.

In order to accelerate this, we should raise awareness on this solution and enforce global regulation to incentivize this transition. This is exactly the objectives of the second session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that took place in Paris late May and that is looking to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution (INC-2). Looking in another direction, seaweed fibre makes an excellent replacement for unsustainable textiles — cotton, for example — that needs water and a lot of pesticides.

What are some of the most promising medical innovations that can be derived from seaweed, and how can we accelerate their development and integration into healthcare practices?

The millennia of experience of Chinese medicine tell us much more about the benefits of these organisms, which have become one of the pillars of health in Asia. China has recently released a seaweed drug capable of preventing Alzheimer’s. In Europe, Norwegians are starting to cure cystic fibrosis using seaweed.  Seaweed are also natural pre-biotics that can boost our microbiome — which we increasingly know to be important. We know that seaweed anti-cancer properties are more and more demonstrated. Seaweeds are natural antioxidants.

For almost two centuries, our Western pharmacopoeia has turned massively to chemistry, too often neglecting biology. It has considered humans and our health as an agglomeration of responses to independent bioactive compounds. However, the complexity of nature goes much further. We are increasingly realizing this to be true in Western medicine.

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The same is true for seaweed; these organisms are only truly effective when consumed whole, as the result of complex and complementary phenomena between different compounds. Studying these compounds individually means losing the complexity of these synergies. In short, it is better to eat whole seaweed rather than try to extract the interesting substances one by one to eat them as food supplements.

We will need to support these allegations with science and there is a huge science gap so far. Investment in research are needed. But the potential for innovation is almost unlimited. In France, the vision of a completely blind man was partially restored recently, using light-sensing protein found in algae, which helps them move towards the light…

How can seaweed cultivation contribute to mitigating global warming and what role can it play in carbon sequestration?

Seaweed is also one of the most promising, scalable nature-based solutions for both decarbonizing the economy and sequestering carbon, sending it back where it came from, under the ocean. Decarbonizing because it will replace high-emission products (plastics, fertilizers, etc…) and cut methane emissions. Sequestering carbon because as it grows, seaweed traps carbon through photosynthetic production.

Seaweed is the only food that could reverse climate change; it can grow up to 50cm a day and up to 60m high! Much better than any tropical forest. Seaweed forests absorb as much as the combined annual emissions of the UK and France today.  And what is even better is that, just as you shed some cells of your skin, seaweed loses a lot of biomass during growth — up to 50%. Half of this lost biomass feeds phytoplankton and other low trophic species contributing to life in the ocean, the rest of the biomass ends up in the abyssal sediments of the ocean. If it goes more than 100 meters deep, it will sequester for millennia, if not millions of years.

And seaweed is increasingly vulnerable to the disruption of the ocean ecosystem caused by human activity. We have already lost 80% of seaweed forests off California. We are all concerned about Amazonian deforestation but who cares about these underwater forests disappearing? We need — urgently — to protect, replant and cultivate these ecosystems or else they’ll disappear… And we will as well!

What specific strategies can be employed to repair biodiversity through the cultivation and utilization of seaweed?

Seaweed is the source of life on the planet. It has shaped life on the planet in the past and it will keep doing so in the future. If we want to start to repair the ocean instead of destroying them, seaweed is the best place to start. It is the first trophic level in the ocean so it will provide food and habitat to wildlife. As soon as seaweed grows, life around them will develop. Just like forest on land. We should call them sea forest.

 How can the economies of coastal communities be supported through the cultivation of seaweed, particularly in areas where fish stocks are declining?

Seaweed is a great source of revenues and jobs for coastal communities. Quite often it is very inclusive as it does benefit women and contribute to gender parity and women empowerment. In the microscopic island of Zanzibar, where seaweed cultivation started 30 years ago, 80% of the revenue goes to women while the region is Muslim-dominated and used to be quite conservative when it comes to women’s rights.

Now, things have changed. Seaweed is the second or the third largest source of export revenues for the island which benefits 25,000 people. Zanzibar, with less than one million inhabitants, produces in the Indian Ocean twice more seaweed than India does today. India, Europe, and America are still in the early stages of understanding and utilizing the potential of the oceans. To progress, we need to embrace a modern approach by engaging in ocean farming and applying the lessons learned from our land-based mistakes. This systemic revolution will not only transform our relationship with the ocean but also address social injustices.

What steps can individuals, communities, and governments take to reconnect with seaweed and foster a greater understanding and appreciation of its value and potential benefits?

One of the major barriers identified is the lack of collaboration. The seaweed industry is small, fragmented, disconnected and highly competitive. This situation results in low-efficiency and a lot of overlaps in pilot initiatives and research. It took us 10,000 years to domesticate land crops. We won’t have so much time for seaweed… we need to get together, develop academic research and attract investments from the private and public sectors.

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We can only do this by working together. In the meantime, large food brands are struggling to use seaweed because of the patchwork of regulations around the globe. Mismatching regulations prevent buyers from accessing resources and prevent producers creating a global market. We need to create consistent regulations for everyone.

Also, we must be aware that wild seaweed tides, like the Sargassum in the Caribbean, are not the problem themselves but rather a symptom of underlying issues. Blaming these natural occurrences is unfair and misleading. To address the root causes, we need to focus on tackling the underlying problems contributing to such seaweed tides.

In the end, since authorities are wary of licensing seaweed cultivation, it is now harder to obtain licences for seaweed cultivation in the ocean than obtaining licences for oil extraction. These seaweed tides are a result of wild seaweed proliferating due to pollutants from land. Well-managed seaweed cultivation can have positive environmental impacts, but the establishment of processes and standards is necessary.

Overcoming the main challenge relies on collective effort. To establish a resilient seaweed market like the one in Asia, it requires all of us to buy and consume seaweed. Increasing interest in seaweed is the most effective way to drive change. Our food choices have the power to shape the world and each meal presents an opportunity to make an environmental impact. With the involvement of chefs and trendsetters, we can lead the way in driving this change.

Seaweed represents good news as a nature-based, global, and game-changing solution. It signifies a revolution that transcends generations, offering hope and optimism. By farming the ocean responsibly, we can become the first generation to successfully feed the entire population with safe and sustainable food while reconnecting land and ocean. However, achieving this goal requires collective action.

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