This underwater farmer wants us to eat more seaweed

It’s also good for the environment: around half the photosynthesis on the planet occurs in seaweeds and algae in oceans, absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Harnessing seaweed’s untapped potential could aid both food security and the fight against the climate crisis, says the United Nations, while providing a habitat that nurtures biodiversity.
The global seaweed industry doubled in size between 2005 and 2015, and produced 33 million tons in 2018. But it’s still a niche food in most cultures.
Kate Burns wants to change that. She is the founder of Islander Rathlin Kelp, which farms kelp and turns it into a range of food products.

Burns, whose family is from Rathlin, realized the island’s surrounding waters are ideal for kelp. Maintaining a constant temperature between around 7 to 12 degrees Celsius (44 to 54 Fahrenheit), the nutrient-rich waters allow Islander Kelp to farm year-round and grow about 50 tons annually, she says.

Cultivating kelp — an algae, not a plant — involves taking cuttings back to a lab and stimulating them to release spores, which are then nurtured in sterile seawater tanks before being grown on ropes at sea. Islander Kelp has 15 to 20 ropes deployed at any one time, each bearing around a ton of kelp along their 330-feet length.

Kate Burns, founder of Islander Rathlin Kelp.

Developing a taste for kelp

“Farmed kelp isn’t cheap … but it’s worth every penny,” argues Burns. Kelp is rich in savory umami flavors, and her company sells kelp noodles to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and England — as well as producing kelp pesto, tapenade and salsa verde.

The industry has plenty of room for growth, she suggests: “It’s surprising how much chefs and people talk about seaweed — ‘the new food’ — but when you look for it in menus or … in shops, it’s still not there.”

Kelp thrives in the waters off Rathlin Island.
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Elisa Capuzzo, senior ecosystem scientist at the UK government’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), tells CNN that many people are still unfamiliar with seaweed as a food. “I think there is a component of educating the consumer, because you’re developing, in a way, a new market,” she says.

Capuzzo says more research is also required into the industry’s effect on nature. “There are impacts associated with seaweed aquaculture, both positive and negative,” she says.

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“Some studies show that there is effectively an increase in biodiversity in them,” Capuzzo explains. However, “you are adding an extra structure in the sea that could potentially become a stepping stone for non-native species to spread, or you are providing a structure in the sea that could become an obstacle for big fauna to move around.”

Responsible planning, management and monitoring of farms will be key as the industry grows, she says.

In addition to its nutritional and environmental benefits, Burns argues the crop offers an economic opportunity for fishing communities too.

“We, as a small community here, have done something amazing, and we’ve proved it can work under the most challenging circumstances with very little resources,” Burns says.

“It’s such an important foodstuff, such a sustainable foodstuff and such a useful resource for coastal communities,” Burns argues. “It needs to take off.”

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