My son, the future seaweed farmer

Will seaweed play a big role in our food & biomaterials industries? A lot of researchers, start-ups, and investors seem to think so...

My son, the future seaweed farmer
Photo by Oleksandr Sushko on Unsplash

My 14-year-old son says he wants to be a seaweed farmer when he grows up.

I can’t help but feel just a wee bit responsible for this.

I’m the one who got him addicted to nori snacks as a child and told him about the article I read that said seaweed farming is a huge untapped opportunity here in coastal BC – and all you need to get started is a boat and $5,000.

And I may have spent too much time in recent months waxing rhapsodic about the huge nutritional benefits and possibilities of seaweed – and how it seems like a lot of companies and researchers are exploring ways to use algae to create new biodegradable materials,  technologies, and biofuels that could help wean us off fossil fuels, pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, restore our oceans, and accelerate our progress to a carbon-free future.

Plus there were those books on seaweed that I left hanging around in the living room for months on end.

So, um, yeah… maybe I did play a small role in influencing my son’s current career plans.

But it was never my intention to indoctrinate the poor kid.

At least, not consciously. I’d just been reading and talking overly much about one of my latest obsessions and leaving evidence of it strewn around our home. I never imagined that either of my kids would be like, “Welp, that’s decided! That’s the job for me!”

Of course, he is only fourteen and will likely change his mind several more times by the time he finishes high school. But right now his plan is to take sailing lessons and study marine biology so he can learn more about the ocean in which he’s intending to grow his future crops.

And I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t entertain the same idea if I were his age, knowing what I know, at this particular moment in history.

Because the thing is, seaweed really DOES seem like it might end up playing a significant role in helping us create a food-secure, carbon-free future. (See also: mushrooms.) Many seaweeds are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals and food scientists around the world are exploring ways to use algae to grow healthy and delicious food products using minimal  energy and resources.  

I’ve also seen a number of researchers talking about the possibilities of growing kelp forests to keep our oceans healthy and provide food and shelter for local marine life while also acting as a carbon sink to take CO2 out of the air.

A few years ago I saw a documentary that imagined offshore kelp and shellfish farms being run on abandoned offshore oil rigs and I’ve never been so quick to pump a fist and say, “Yes! That’s the kind of future I want to live in!”

Less offshore oil drilling, more tasty seaweed, mussels and oysters, please.

Then there are the biomaterials companies working on developing all sorts of new products and technologies intended to reduce CO2 emissions and eliminate the need for plastic and other fossil fuel-derived materials.

I’m talking about companies like Loliware, which creates “plastic” pellets from algae that can be used to create biodegradable single-use products, such as straws. Loliware recently raised $15.4 million in investments to become the most funded algae startup in the world.

There's also CarbonWave, which upcycles Sargassum seaweed gathered from Mexico’s Caribbean coast into regenerative, advanced biomaterials, including a fertilizer and an emulsifier used in beauty products.  

London-based Brilliant Planet was started by a molecular biochemist and is using algae to pull carbon out of the air and bury it in the ground.

Closer to home we have Cascadia Seaweed, which cultivates local species of kelp on low-impact ocean farms in British Columbia in partnership with coastal First Nations – then use that kelp to manufacture products for crop and cattle farmers addressing two global challenges: food security and climate change.

Sophie’s BioNutrients is a sustainable food company that recently launched its first 100% plant-based burger patty created from single-cell microalgae, which claims to have more protein than commercially-sold beef or most fish. And it just unveiled the world’s first 100% microalgae-based milk alternative.

Another London-based startup, Phycobloom, is harvesting oil from genetically engineered algae to produce a sustainable and commercially viable biofuel – while France-based Algama extracts proteins from microalgae and sells them to food companies for use in vegan mayonnaise and products imitating tuna flakes or smoked salmon strips.

Those are just a few companies to give you an idea of what’s happening in the world of seaweed and algae. I don’t know if any of these companies and their products will become game-changers that make a huge impact on our climate situation and ability to feed and clothe ourselves.  But the fact that so many people are working on these and other possible solutions to our climate challenges fills me with hope.

That’s why I can’t stop talking about seaweed.

And algae. And mycelium and energy storage. And ebikes and green concrete and animal-free dairy and lab-grown meat.

Because when you spend so much time hearing and thinking about all of the enormous and possibly species-ending problems facing us, it’s important to consider the many thousands of people all around the world who are working on solutions to those problems.

And YES, I know hopium is a toxic drug. I don’t mean that we should naively trust that technology’s going to save us so we can just keep on blithely living our lives the way we’ve always done.

It's clear we're going to have to make some massive changes in our lives, jobs, cities, infrastructure and economic models. And if you look around, you can see some of them already happening. Never as quickly as you want them to. But they’re happening. And I believe the more we talk about them and follow their progress and highlight the solutions that have real potential, the easier it will be for us to accelerate our journey to the future we actually WANT to have – as opposed to the one we don’t.

Ultimately, we have to believe a desirable future is possible if we ever hope to make it a reality.

And we have be able to visualize what we want that future to look like.

I can imagine a future where thriving kelp and shellfish farms provide coastal communities like the one we live in with abundant food and materials to craft into tools, clothing, and biofuel. All created locally, close to where it will end up being eaten and used.

And I’m glad my son is starting to imagine that kind of future, too.

Because it’s only in imagining a possible future that we embark on the path of becoming capable of creating it.

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