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Food and sustainability

Vegetables of the Sea

We’re used to thinking of a farmer as someone who grows vegetables in his garden or fields, but the sea too can be fertile “land” for the cultivation of a food that is valuable for both our health and environment: seaweed.

In addition to fish, the sea also gives us seaweed, a vegetable that comes in an incredibly wide variety of shapes and that is an absolute gold mine in terms of nutritional properties, rich in compounds that are essential for optimum health. In fact, they contain many minerals and trace elements, vitamin groups, and in some cases high amounts of protein. Hijiki, for example, is an excellent source of calcium with 1,400 milligrams (much more than milk) per 100 grams of dry product, while dry Nori has a protein content that varies from 30-50% and is rich in vitamins. One thing to keep in mind for those planning to consume seaweed: it has a very high concentration of nutrients so be careful not to overdo it.

Once Upon a Time in the Far East
For thousands of years seaweed has been a part of the traditional cuisine in many Asian countries, in particular China, Japan, and Korea. But over the years, and with the migration of peoples from the East to the West, seaweed is now being served around the world. Some still see it as a “strange” food while others eat it without hesitation, enjoying a maki at a Japanese restaurant, and still others – for example those that follow a macrobiotic diet – seek it out for its nutritional properties. According to the experts from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in a document focusing on the seaweed industry, China, South Korea, and Japan continue to be the primary producers of this “sea vegetable”, yet countries around the world are getting ready for a new kind of agriculture that takes advantage of the sea. The same document also mentions that the total estimated value of seaweed production is equal to $6 billion, 5 of which for human consumption. This should come as no surprise given the fact that seaweed is an incredibly versatile ingredient in the kitchen and, once picked and processed, can be used in many other ways as well: from the production of biofuel and animal feed, to the production of molecules that can be used in cosmetics and medicine.

Farming the Sea: a Sustainable Solution
But why focus so heavily on seaweed? If you stop to think about it, it’s clear that our experience in cultivating and processing these vegetables is minimal as compared to the experience we have accumulated over the course of millennia in cultivating plants on land. But it’s also clear that modern agriculture must change in order to be sustainable for the planet.
The figures cited in the latest edition of Eating Planet leave no doubt regarding the environmental impact of agriculture: agriculture is responsible for 70% of the consumption of fresh water and 26% of the production of green house gases, plus 43% of temperate and tropical forests have been cut down to make room for farmland. Furthermore, the hunger for land is still alive and estimates predict that arable land will diminish by 8-20% by the year 2050. That’s where seaweed comes in. As opposed to traditional agriculture, seaweed farming doesn’t require the availability of new land, and, a very important trait, seaweed “takes care of itself”. This means that in order to cultivate it there’s no need to add water to that in which it’s already growing, there’s no need for additional energy beyond that which it receives from the sun, which even at extreme latitudes, like those of the Swedish and Scottish coastlines, provides enough energy to ensure bountiful growth. And, coming full circle in terms of sustainability, it’s important to highlight that by absorbing nutrients from the water, seaweed creates a micro-environment that is perfect for small fish and crustaceans and that the cultivation of seaweed could potentially contribute to reducing eutrophication and to increasing biodiversity in coastal areas.
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