A New Source Of Sustainable Food

Rameshwaram is located in the State of Tamil Nadu in India.  It is also known as Pamban Island, a sacred site of pilgrimage. However, today the area is becoming known for something else. The shoreline is where large amounts of seaweed are growing, and it seems, the potential to transform the area’s ecosystem, its economy and its food.    The many villages in these coastal areas are taking advantage of the growing interest in seaweed.

Seaweed’s place in  India’s history

Seaweed has had a place in Indian folk medicine for as far back as one can go. However, its significance in India has never been as great as in other Asian regions. The picking of seaweed for use in traditional medicines is a very old custom and has been done along most of the coastal areas. The whole area is known as “richly biodiverse”.  

Natural wild seaweeds are indigenous to the region and locals have been picking it for thousands of years. India is now looking to these local villages as the prototype in the cultivation of seaweed. It is fast becoming the fastest growing sector of food production globally.  Its growth is presently at 8 percent each year. India is fast becoming associated not only for its focus on technology and science and all things modern like enjoying an Intertops mobile casino, but in creating a sustainable food source.

Seaweed cultivation as a source of sustainable food has been advocated by Indian researchers for a long time. The tropical waters of the coast area are an ideal environment for seaweed to grow, with shallow waters and loaded with nutrients.    

Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are home to the highest seaweed biodiversity in India, and Tamil Nadu having approximately 282 different species of seaweed, along its coastline. In fact, there are thought to be at least 841 species of seaweed growing along the Indian coast and many of these are not being cultivated.

Because India’s economy is mainly agrarian, the benefits could be vast. 60% of India’s land is for agricultural use but much of it is not useable due to soil degradation. Water loss is the major problem, but it could be that seaweed can go a long way to solve the water issue.

According to Dinabandhu Sahoo, a botanist at Delhi University “Seaweed has an innate ability to combat malnutrition being a perfect source of iodine, vitamins and proteins.” He is a strong advocate for a “blue revolution” in agriculture. And, it seems that the Indian government agrees with this as they have recently allocated around $87million in subsidies towards seaweed farming for the next five years.

Seaweed’s potential

Seaweed has a lot going for it, besides it’s nutritional value. It gains its energy by means of photosynthesis, similar to that of plants even though seaweed is in fact macroalgae. Having absorbed carbon dioxide, seaweed then converts the carbon into sugars for energy and then emits oxygen into the water.   

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It was thought that most of the carbon contained in seaweed would be slowly released into the ocean when it decomposed. However, on finding huge amounts of dead seaweed on the ocean floor, the residue shows that the majority of dead seaweed gets carried out to sea and ultimately sinks to the seafloor, locking in the remaining carbon. According to seaweed ecologist, Dorte Krause-Jensen and others at Aarhus University in Denmark “Seaweed cultivation has now been identified as a carbon sink that could help mitigate climate change”. Along with storing carbon, seaweed also provides food for many of the animals and organisms living in the ocean.

Seaweed farming has taken quite a time to get going. It first started around 1987 when a particular species called Kappaphycus alyarezii, originating in the Philippines was brought in by the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute, (CSMCRI) connected to India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The idea was to supply industry with seaweed used in the manufacture of agar. Agar is a sought-after jelly used for many purposes including food products and cosmetics and also for developing microorganisms. However, after 10 years of research, according to Eswaran K, a scientist at the CSMCRIs Marine Algal Research Station, who has been researching seaweed for almost 27 years, a small amount of seaweed was brought into Mandapam, Tamil Nadu in 1997.   Over the years, it has produced an abundance of seaweed and seaweed farms right along the coastline.

However, seaweed harvesting really took off around 2000. CSMCRI licensed the technology to PepsiCo who wanted to use the seaweed as an ingredient for cosmetics in food products and in industry, as a thickening agent rather than as a food crop. According to Eswaran “This heralded commercial seaweed cultivation in India.”

In 2008 PepsiCo sold up and was bought by AquAgri, an Indian company, and one of the first to enter into the business of seaweed cultivation. Today, after 18 years, the company has eighteen cultivation farms in Tamil Nadu and employs hundreds of people, the majority of whom are women. According to Alamy “Seaweed harvesting has become an important source of income to coastal communities, in particular for women.”

For instance, Muthulakshmi Nambarajan has been farming seaweed for 38 years. She says she now prefers “to work close to the shores spending my time catering to the rafts”. From here the seaweed grows around the ropes that are secured by stones. From here she is able to harvest and prepare around 50kg of seaweed every day.

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The increase in seaweed cultivation has been very beneficial from a socioeconomic perspective on the coastal communities, and especially for women who have become far more economically independent.

Altogether there are around 1,200 families who are working in seaweed cultivation in the Tamil Nadu coastal area, according to Eswaran. Each family is given 45 bamboo rafts to farm and harvest, one for each day. Each raft can bring in 200kg and from this, 50kg is used to begin on the next fast.

The cultivation of seaweed is now on the fast track in India.  CSMCRI has plans to work with the Ministry of Fisheries to establish seaweed cultivation of homegrown and exotic types of seaweed in a 100km length of shoreline.   This will not only be a source of food but also for, amongst others things, use as bio-fertilizers and biofuels .   It has been shown that liquid bio fertilizer can generate a boost in crops and is already on the market.  Biofuels are in the process of being made viable for economic and environmental use.

Is seawood all good news?

There may well be some ecological disadvantages to seaweed cultivation. It has been found that seaweed left to grow without being checked can actually damage coral reefs; it seems that the many fish that inhabit these coral reefs prefer them free of seaweed. Coral reefs close to the island of Kurusadai were being inundated with seaweed floating in from cultivations nearby. Eswaran does point out that the “use of suction pumps to pick up any stray fronds of seaweed can help to minimize the risk of cultivated seaweed establishing amid coral reefs”.

The global Seaweed trade is a huge market at more than $6billion per year. The value of India’s seaweed is thought to be about $500 million, notwithstanding the difficulties of recent years.  Abhirim Seth, the founder of AquAgri says “In 2013 close to 1500 metric tons of seaweed was harvested. But then, El Nino and global warming contributed to increasing the temperature of oceans. That’s resulted in lower yield in the years to come.”

Also, there is a lack of seed material owing to the 2013-14 because of the ocean temperatures, which caused damage to the reproduction of Kappaphycus alyarezi. Eswaran says that “To overcome this, we are working towards developing a heat-resistant strain and establishing a functional seed bank, though research is still in its early stages.”

The future is looking good for India’s seaweed and Indian cuisine. Seaweed will likely have a huge influence on India’s coastline. It may well help to keep the carbon in check and help to save India’s agricultural land.

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