Australian scientists have been discovering an almost endless list of ways that seaweed and other types of algae can help in the fight against climate change.
It is the continuous study and harvesting of seaweed species in Australia that has convinced Dr. Pia Winberg that they can play as important a role in human civilization as commodities such as wheat, wood, plastic, concrete or nitrogen.
In the same way that Australia has unique animals found nowhere else, its range of marine plant species is richer and more diverse than in most places on Earth.
“If we were to use the infrastructure in the oceans and create islands of algae, we would actually eliminate a lot of the climate change problems that we have today,” he says, in a interview and documentary by Isabelle Gerretsen from the BBC.
Their reasoning is based on the rapid growth rate of algae and their ability to absorb carbon at much, much faster rates than land plants.
Coupled with the rich nutrient profile of seaweed and its unique molecular structure, Winberg believes that it should be farmed on the largest scale and that it could balance emissions, deacidify the oceans, change the way we farm, and open a Pandora’s box of research of new materials That could include everything from biodegradable plastics to building materials and artificial body parts.
Algae: a primer
45,000 years ago, Australian Aborigines were making water carriers out of seaweed sheets. Its rubbery and flexible texture, but thick and resistant, made it perfect for the task.
Nori, the seaweed eaten in Japanese cuisine, was the first to be cultivated when it was cultivated off the coast of Japan in 1670.
All algae are seaweed, but not all algae are algae. In fact, just like a LEGO set, the three species of algae are “red, yellow, and brown.” Kelp is a brown algae.
In optimal conditions, seaweed can grow astonishingly two feet. per day, without requiring nitrogen-rich fertilizers like terrestrial crops, or obviously weeding. As on land, kelp and other algae use photosynthesis to grow biomass by absorbing CO2, only at an estimated rate of 50 times even than forests.
During the devastating fires in the Amazon rainforest a few years ago, opinion pieces and other articles were awash with the phrase “The lungs of the Earth.” Actually, it is the seaweed that deserves that title.
According to a Investigation report from Conservation International’s Marine Climate Change Program, Today’s marine environment is where any smart, modern action against climate change should take place. 90% of the global carbon budget is in the oceans, while between 30% and 50% of all human-caused emissions have been absorbed by them.
Winberg and his research associates feel that seaweed has an important role to play in this figure. How big? Well one study found that total emissions from California’s agricultural sector could be absorbed if only 3.8% of its coastal waters were dedicated to the cultivation of seaweed.
A model for the future
Winberg is not an armchair algae activist; his family farm in Shoalhaven, New South Wales, implements what could be seen as a model for the agriculture and industry of the future.
Next door, a wheat refinery pumps its emissions into large vats of seawater where algae use them through photosynthesis to grow. Nitrogen and other nutrients from the refinery strengthen the green algae, allowing them to become all kinds of different substrates for products like pet food, cosmetics, and even ice cream.
“Even a 10% replacement of seaweed in wheat production or meat production in feed would have a huge impact,” explains Winberg, who believes that the cultivation of seaweed in Australia is one of the best ways to focus on large-scale algae cultivation.
A 50 hectare mussel farm in Jarvis Bay is implementing this concept and growing algae alongside its mussel farm. Fishermen believe that it improves the quality of mussels, reasoning that the best seafood always comes from areas rich in marine plants.
Your merchant instincts are not wrong, as a study found that the absorption of CO2 by seaweed creates a buffer in its immediate vicinity, reducing the acidity levels of the ocean water around it, giving fish and shellfish better conditions to grow. When grown en masse, this deacidification could change the entire ocean ecosystem.
In 2020 GNN reported on the development of a dietary supplement that, when administered to cows, removes 80% of the methane produced through intestinal fermentation of feed, effectively eliminating 2.8% of US emissions attributable to all livestock animals. That supplement was made from algae.
Since methane stays in the atmosphere for only 12 years, it wouldn’t take long for an entire nation’s livestock industry to become methane-neutral.
Life began in the oceans, and instead of some magical space metal or nuclear fusion, the solution to many of the world’s biggest problems may require us to look back at our past, rather than to the future.
(LOOK BBC Future’s video on this story below).
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