In this UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development it is little wonder that a sustainable crop has recently been thrust onto the global agenda as a coastal livelihood alternative that links economic growth both to food security and to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Seaweed, a marine algae, requires no fresh water or fertilisers to thrive, is fast-growing and nutrient-intense, and doesn’t interfere with land-based systems. It has a number of end-uses, including carbon-dioxide removal via bio-sequestration. Globally, macroalgae sequester around 173 terra grams of carbon per year and deliver an estimated US$1.2-3.5bn in nutrient bio-mitigation services (26.2% of the current global commercial value of the entire industry).
Once it is harvested, dried and processed, seaweed can be used in the food industry, as a texture modifier or for direct food consumption; as a supplement feed for livestock; or in industrial and commercial applications such as fertilisers, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Ten thousand species of seaweed, or macroalgae (green, red and brown), have been identified in the marine environment, yet just five genera—Saccharina, Undaria, Porphyra, Eucheuma/ Kappaphycus and Gracilaria—represent 98% of the world’s cultivated seaweed production, with China, Indonesia and the Philippines the main producers.
Seaweed production in Indonesia accounts for around 40% of the national fisheries output and is a source of employment for nearly 1m individuals throughout the country. Many of those engaged in primary production are former artisanal fishers, whose livelihoods continue to be at risk from increasing ocean acidification, rising sea-surface temperatures and eutrophication, which are depleting fish stocks and marine habitats.
Despite the recent rapid growth of seaweed cultivation in Indonesia, only 20% of the potential 12m hectares of coastline available for marine cultivation have been explored, leaving huge scope for further sustainable growth of the industry—and for laying the foundations of a new blue-green economy in a post-covid world. Huge growth potential is already being realised globally: current projections of growth in the global commercial seaweed sector exceed 12% annually to 2026, from US$58.9bn to US$85.5bn.
MARI Oceans seaweed farmer in Maccede Village, Bone Regency, South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia (photo by Dodon Yamin, October 2020)
While the benefits of seaweed farming transcend the sustainable-development agenda, the industry in Indonesia is not without its challenges. Recent reports have highlighted the fractured and unequitable state of the value chain, with many farmers lingering below the poverty line as a result of volatile
output prices and congested supply chains. Price volatility is due largely to a lack of quality assurance at the primary level. But guaranteeing quality is challenging, for several reasons. The sector is underserved by financial services, and farmers have limited access to financial products for business growth. There is poor uptake of technology to improve operations, and some farming practices are unsustainable. One example is a lack of genetic diversity in seedlings, which makes crops vulnerable to disease or environmental change; marine heatwaves and increased rainfall also contribute to uncertainties over yields. Finally, the industry’s management and organisational structure are not well aligned with the needs of local communities.
Tackling these systemic risks and rebalancing the fractured supply chain to ensure fair and ethical working practices for farmers will require re-engineering the current system so that it is distributive and restorative, rather than biased and exploitative.
A transition from artisanal to contract farming, so that farmers are paid on time and in full, will help them maintain a stable income and become financially resilient, so that they can lift themselves and their households out of poverty. This transformation requires improved connectivity across the value chain, not just at the local level but internationally. Digital cooperative platforms can enhance transparency, traceability and links between stakeholders and help shape an equitable and inclusive value chain that elevates farmers’ value and empowers sustainable development.
Seaweed farming has multiple benefits when managed effectively, but it is not a panacea for mitigating climate change and food security. Instead, it must be part of an integrated coastal ecosystem approach, whereby secondary income is generated from community development through holistic approaches to coastal resilience. Opportunities such as coastal restoration initiatives, waste banks, training and education, and microfinance drive further value for coastal communities and empower distributive and resilient local growth.
This article was originally published as a guest blog for Economist Impact.