Can marine forests save the earth?

The ‘algae revolution’ is to help in the fight against global warming and the growing world population. Will the solutions soon come from the seas, which, paradoxically, are feared to rise?

With the signing of the first Safe Seaweed Coalition in March 2022, the concept of large underwater forests has entered the world of science fiction definitely grown out. The idea is to unite the various players in the seaweed sector – producers, industries, researchers and environmental associations – to harmonize safety regulations and knowledge on a global level. But also to prevent huge monocultures that threaten marine ecosystems.

If we use only 2 percent of the ocean for algae production, we can feed up to 12 billion people.

Our planet consists of 70 percent water. If we use just 2 percent of the ocean for algae production, we could feed up to 12 billion people, in addition to the livestock currently fed on soy.

Seaweed is extremely rich in protein, vitamins, zinc, iodine, iron and omega-3. Moreover, it has many advantages. For example, it counteracts global warming by absorbing CO2 and producing large amounts of oxygen – two-thirds of what we breathe. Seaweed also regulates marine ecosystems by ridding the water of excess nitrates and phosphates and by providing nutrients and habitats for marine life. Finally, it can be used as an organic fertilizer, a sustainable substitute for plastic or an ingredient in medicine and cosmetics. The development of this sector will also create many jobs.

Turbulent legal waters

The project brings together researchers from the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in France), the UN and the Lloyds Register Foundation, who specialize in seeking answers to this century’s great challenges. The basis for the coalition is based on the Tang Manifesto. This should serve as a lifeline in the murky international legal waters in which seaweed farming floats. Currently, this sector – often forgotten by governments – is left to private companies, which are not keen to share their knowledge. There are no international standards for food and production safety or for the preservation of marine environments.

If livestock feed changed from corn or soy to algae-based feed, methane emissions from cows would drop by 98 percent.

If livestock feed changed from corn or soy to algae-based feed, methane emissions from cows would drop by 98 percent. This is the conclusion of a study published in June 2020 in the Journal of Cleaner Production. A cow produces an average of 150 kilos of methane per year. This greenhouse gas warms 25 times more than CO2.

Feeding seaweed is also said to benefit the animals’ overall health by improving their digestion and strengthening the immune system. Scotland has understood: since 2016 it has been feeding this type of plant to its Ronaldsay sheep. Ireland will now try the same with its cattle.

Use of knowledge from major oil companies

Ironically, this “algae revolution” requires the support and expertise of major oil companies. So far, they are the only ones with the necessary knowledge to control ocean waves and strong marine movements.

One of the largest underwater forest projects is led by a former Shell executive. He founded Kelp Blue, a company specializing in aquaculture, with the mission of restoring the environmental balance. On July 21, 2022, the city of Lüderitz in Namibia gave him the green light to grow a huge brown algae, macrocystis, off the coast. This giant kelp (‘kelp’ in English) is the largest we know and can grow up to thirty meters long.

Kelp Blue wants to plant its marine forests on 70,000 hectares, an area larger than 70,000 football pitches. An initiative that can be positive in many ways. According to the company, the giant kelp forests will attract around 200 animal species. This would in turn lead to a 20 percent increase in the fish population, which not only finds shelter but also food.

Read also: Offshore wind farms and seaweed farms: a match made in heaven

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