Can kelp help save us? Only if we eat it.
What do Everything Bagel seasoning, a Krunch bar, and a Vermont creamery butter blend have in common? Seaweed, specifically kelp, which may be the most super superfood to ever make waves. It’s highly nutritious, but what makes it a standout is its ability to de-acidify ocean water, sequester phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, and improve water quality so significantly that shellfish farmed alongside it have stronger shells and larger, sweeter meat. It could even help boost fishing economies in the Northeast as lobsters move northward due to climate change
There’s only one problem: Not enough people want to eat it.
That isn’t stopping Atlantic Sea Farms, in Saco, Maine, which started the first commercial seaweed farm in this country 10 years ago. It just raised another round of funding to release more kelp-inspired products. It’s also looking to reach more consumers with a number of initiatives, including running recipes on product packaging.
“Right now there are very few seaweed products on the market that are easy for consumers to know what to do with,” says CEO Brianna Warner, noting that most seaweed is dried. “We think offering fresh versus dried and dehydrated products is significant for allowing kelp to taste that way it should.”
Maine LOVES kelp
Atlantic Sea Farms is one of a number of organizations providing support to local kelp farmers, offering them free seeds and technical assistance. The University of Maine funded an 11-week training program this spring covering topics like site selection and financial management. And the nonprofit, GreenWave, helps individuals start small-scale restorative ocean farms, including growing seaweed alongside mussels and oysters, which helps absorb greenhouse emissions and strengthen the marine ecosystem.
Kelp farming couldn’t come at a better time for Maine. Since the 1980s, warming water off the coast of Maine has been good for lobster fishing, which thrived, becoming so successful China started importing lobsters by the ton. But recent years have seen a reversal of the industry’s good fortune. The gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, a rate seven times faster than the global average. This increase is shaking up the local marine ecosystems, and lobsters are reacting by moving north to Nova Scotia.
Cue kelp. Because it’s a winter crop, kelp is viewed as an offseason income generator for summer lobstermen. The Atlantic’s broad shelf and protective waters make New England an ideal kelp farming region. And farmers can take advantage of parts of the lobster industry’s existing infrastructure, such as boats and growing sites.
Greenwave cofounder Bren Smith is optimistic about the prospects for restorative kelp farming. "The momentum's been unbelievable,” he told NPR earlier this month. “We have requests to start farms in every coastal state in North America, 20 countries around the world.”
Efforts to build kelp farming are paying off. Maine now has more than 133 licensed harvesters, and in 2017, Maine farmers grew 20 million pounds of seaweed.
That sounds impressive until you compare it to Asia, where over 98 percent of edible seaweed is being produced. China alone produced 2.1 million tons of dried seaweed in 2015. Much of it ends up in animal feed or is used in industrial applications, such as thickeners for toothpaste. Atlantic Sea Farm is among critics who say some of it is grown with little or no environmental oversight or batch testing for quality and safety. And therein lies an opportunity for local kelp farmers.
“When it comes into the U.S., seaweed is sometimes re-hydrated and dyed with some pretty nasty stuff,” writes Atlantic Sea Farm. “That’s not good enough for us, especially when we know we can do it better right here in our clean, cold home waters of Maine with fresh, undried kelp that tastes the way it should - naturally.
For America’s burgers-and-fries cuisine, that fresh seaweed, which its briny, dense texture, can be an acquired taste. But kelp has its taste ambassadors. New York Times columnist, Melissa Clark, recently shared a recipe for creamy, kelp-seasoned stew, along with a list of her favorite seaweed snacks. Long Island’s Greenport Harbor Brewery infuses a porter with local kelp. And Chef Brooks Headley, a self-proclaimed “kelp guy,” works it into recipes at New York City’s Superiority Burger. "Whenever we get kelp, we always sell out,” he says. “It's totally nuts."
The recipes and hearing from people who really like the stuff could help persuade more people to give kelp a try. But supporters are also betting on the growing awareness of the extent of the climate change crisis. Certainly more evidence is surfacing that shows how much more vulnerable our food system is becoming.
“Food security, which is already a challenge across the globe, is likely to become an even greater challenge as climate change impacts agriculture,” states the United States Global Change Research Program in its Fourth National Climate Assessment. “Climate-smart agriculture can reduce the impacts of climate change and consequent environmental conditions.”
Kelp, which requires no arable land, fertilizer, or fresh water to grow, is as climate-smart as agriculture can get. It’s one reason Smith believes sustainable kelp farming has a big future. But it won’t happen on its own, he says. “This is an exciting, scalable, replicable thing that can be a true climate solution. But it's going to be really hard work."
Ari Smolin lives in Los Angeles and is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow.