How farmers and seaweed can help tackle ocean pollution

Farmers as a group typically do not embrace change. Just ask Luis Lombana, CEO of Ficosterra, a Spanish marine biotechnology company that produces fertilizer from an unexpected source: seaweed.

“Whether you are in Spain or Mexico or the states, farmers are very slow to change the way they have traditionally done things, especially when you come to them with something as different as seaweed,” Lombana said. “To some of them, it sounds a bit like a joke. They look at you and say, ‘So my plants will taste like fish?’ It requires a lot of training. ”

When it comes to marine health, the work of convincing farmers to drop their fertilizer may not happen fast enough. And companies like Ficosterra — which derives its name from ficos, the Greek word for algae and terra, the Latin word for earth — believe that seaweed can help transfer agriculture back to the nature-based methods that mankind used for millennia before the invention. of industrialized agriculture.

Natural fertilizers or “biostimulants” are part of a burgeoning seaweed industry in the West that is more driven by the potential of slippery superfoods as a climate solution than by children crying out for seaweed snacks in packed lunches.

Seaweed, rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, has been a staple of Asian diets and traditional medicine for centuries, and its various uses in food production and scientific research date back decades. But recently, seaweed has been hailed by scientists and others for its environmental benefits – particularly the C02 sequestration potential of seaweed farming – which is causing a boom in North American seaweed farming. And a whole crop of Western startups that manufacture climate-friendly algae-based products, including clothing, cosmetics, bioplastics and biofuels, have emerged.

But the seaweed’s potential to help tackle one of the planet’s least recognized and most pressing ecological crises – destabilizing the Earth’s natural nitrogen and phosphorus cycles – has received less attention. Excessive amounts of these nutrients, especially nitrogen, flow into lakes, estuaries, bays and oceans across the globe, causing harmful algae blooms that destroy marine ecosystems and can be toxic to humans. Wastewater from congested urban septic systems and air pollution from burning fossil fuels contribute to nitrogen pollution, but often the runoff of fertilizers used in industrialized agriculture is the primary culprit.

The seaweed’s potential as a solution to this crisis is twofold, say researchers and environmentalists. Research has shown that aquaculture from the ocean can significantly reduce excess nitrogen flowing to coastal waters, while replacing fertilizer with biostimulants made from seaweed would reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the ocean from agricultural sources.

A silent killer on a massive scale

Algal blooms occur naturally, but when excessive nutrients flow into coastal waters from upstream sources, it stimulates growth that throws the entire system away. Dead zones, areas where these growths consume so much oxygen that nothing else can live there, are a result of this imbalance – like the massive Gulf of Mexico, caused by nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River basin. The Gulf Dead Zone grew to 6,634 square miles this summer, an area larger than the state of Hawaii.

Similarly, researchers have linked the smelly sargassum flowers that have plagued beaches in the Caribbean and Mexico over the past decade, partly to runoff from the agricultural industry, which has laid waste to large shards of the Amazon rainforest. And while the climate crisis is gaining the most attention on coral reefs, researchers in Florida have found that nitrogen-contaminated pollution – from poorly treated wastewater and the fertilizer used on farms, lawns and golf courses – has played at least as much of a role as water heating in the near extinction of corals in the Florida Keys.

“Nitrogen is what drives all these harmful algae blooms in Florida, the red tides, the brown tides, the blue-green algae … and the dying coral,” said Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University who completed 30 years. study on nutrient pollution and coral death, GreenBiz said.

Take a look at the “nine planetary boundaries”, the boundaries that scientists say humans must respect in order to keep the planet habitable, and you will see that we are already outside the safe operating room for four of them: climate change; earth system change; biodiversity; and biogeochemical streams of phosphorus and nitrogen. In terms of biodiversity loss and excess nitrogen, we are well on the high risk zone.

“But you just do not hear much about it,” Lapointe said. “You hear a lot about climate change and CO2, but not about nitrogen.”

Lapoint points out that in the case of coral reefs, the two crises are intertwined because nitrogen is a driving force for loss of reef biodiversity. In fact, scientists are increasingly recognizing nitrogen as a threat to plant and animal species around the world.

Cultivation of a circular solution

Reducing the excess nutrients that cause algae blooms through seaweed use and biostimulants is either ironic or circular, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it is equivalent to algae saving the sea from algae.

More than 10,000 seaweed species fall into three color classifications: red; Brown; and green. Most seaweed productions involve the cultivation of different types of red algae that grow in warmer waters near the equator, and brown algae, such as seaweed, that grow in the cooler waters to the north.

Estimates vary depending on the size of the commercial seaweed market. A conservative estimate put it at $ 16.7 billion in 2020 with growth of $ 30.2 billion expected in 2025. The food industry covers most of the market and is expected to be the main driver of growth; however, reports cite the cosmetics and personal care industry and agriculture – both as fertilizer and in animal feed – as additional drivers.

This expected growth continues the trend over the last 50 years. Between 1969 and 2019, global seaweed production rose to 35.8 million tonnes from 2.2 million tonnes, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Asia dominates the market with 97.4 percent of world production, but indications point to a rapid increase in European and North American cultivation, both of large companies that have been dabbing in seaweed for some time and startups based on algae environmental promise.

A handful of organizations are even trying to make use of harmful sargassum flowers in the Caribbean by collecting seaweed and turning some of it into products, including fertilizer. Startups like SOS Carbon, based in the Dominican Republic, and C-Combinator, a US company with operations in Puerto Rico and Mexico, are two of them. But much of this work remains in its early stages because sargassum is difficult for a few reasons. Most importantly, the flowers contain unhealthy levels of arsenic and heavy metals that must be removed before being sprayed on plants or ingested by humans or animals.

SOS Carbon, a startup born at MIT in 2018, has partners working on various products and striving to use sargassum as a carbon scrubber by collecting the seaweed along with the CO2 it is absorbed into the deep sea. In the short term, however, the company is focused on collection using its Littoral Collection module, which is mounted on any small boat and is designed to sweep sargassum before it reaches shorelines.

The birth of what is essentially a new industry does not happen overnight, and investors do not always have much patience.

In addition to the environmental damage, the flowering has damaged the Caribbean tourism industry and the livelihoods of local fishermen. The Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Center estimates that governments spent about $ 120 million in 2019 trying to clean up Caribbean beaches with limited success. This does not include what hotels and resorts pay to clean up their private beach fronts, which owners estimate can cost a mid-sized hotel $ 60,000 a year.

SOS Carbon is contracting with hotels in the Dominican Republic’s resort area of ​​Punta Cana and hopes to be able to expand throughout the Caribbean soon. Through these contracts, it is able to train local fishermen to use its collection module and now employs seven full-time employees.

“They just need a way to sustain themselves,” said co-founder and CEO Andrés Bisonó León, a native of the Dominican Republic. “We bring them in as formal employees and provide health insurance.”

Not your average startup

Although the outlook for the broader industry is positive, the Western Seaweed Revolution is facing challenges. Securing suitable local coastal sites for the cultivation and construction of infrastructure for the cultivation, transport and processing of seaweed takes time. We are several years into a media love affair with seaweed, which has seen more than a “seaweed is the new kale” headline, and a young crop of North American producers focusing on food is right now seeing the business pick up speed.

Then there is the issue of money. The birth of what is essentially a new industry (outside of Asia anyway) does not happen overnight, and investors do not always have much patience.

“The initial intentions by many means are positive,” said Joust Wooters, co-founder of a Dutch startup called The Seaweed Company. “Unfortunately, there are many means, even though they claim to be circular and green, it is still traditional, old-school capitalism. And that is not always useful, because we are not here for a five-year exit. We are not a software startup. “

Like many of its peers, The Seaweed Company, founded in 2018, has a number of projects and products on the way, but it is the longest commercial with its brand of biostimulants and seaweed-based animal feed. The same nutrients that benefit human health can also contribute to the healthy growth of livestock. Researchers have even found that certain types of seaweed used as feed supplements for cattle can reduce methane emissions from cow farts. Biostimulants, meanwhile, have been shown to improve crop yields by increasing nutrient uptake, growth and stress tolerance.

Like most environmental solutions found in nature, the use of seaweed in land-based agriculture and animal husbandry goes far back. In Europe, coastal communities from the Iberian Peninsula to the northern British Isles used seaweed to enrich infertile farmland at least as far back as Roman times, researchers have found.

Much of this knowledge was lost with industrialization, but some local traditions remain, Wooters said.

“Farmers in Ireland have been using seaweed for centuries,” he said. “The farmers we work with in Ireland know it works.”

Word of mouth helps. Pilot programs designed to transfer farmers to nature-based practices often assume that farmers are learning from each other. This is the strategy Ficosterra uses on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2017, the company was cut off from its parent Hispanagar, a 50-year-old producer of seaweed extracts for use in food production and medical science. Three years later, it entered into a joint venture with Algas Marinas, a Mexican company dedicated to harvesting seaweed for farming, and formed Ficosterra América.

“We usually work with a reference farmer, a reliable reference customer can convince other customers,” Lombana said, adding that the company’s retention rate is 70 percent. “When you get a customer, they are very loyal.”

Although it is a start, given the urgency of the crisis, individual farmers are unlikely to be enough to change their ways. As with climate change, government policy is needed to move things forward. The good news is that governments have begun to acknowledge the crisis. In 2019, UN member states adopted the “Colombo Declaration”, which aims to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. And because water pollution – as opposed to global warming – is largely a localized problem, much work can be done locally, regionally or nationally. level. It will not take all the countries of the world that come to an agreement to get started, only pockets of political will.

[Interested in learning more about sustainable food production? Check out VERGE Food, part of our VERGE 21 online event.]

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