No one food can help us combat climate change and environmental degradation, but if any food could come close, it would be seaweed

Seaweed’s rapid growth and ability to absorb carbon at faster rates than terrestrial plants have put this aquatic dish back on the sustainability map. Along with its environmental benefits, seaweed’s high-nutrient density and unique molecular structure has researchers thinking that the tech of the future is linked to the past.

The history of seaweed

Seaweed is being called the new superfood, but it's actually been a food source for humans as far back as 21,000 BC. Seaweed also has great significance to Indigenous societies across South America, Asia, Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand as food, medicine, and even for technological advancements for building materials and fishing lines.

It’s been researched that seaweed has possibly played a direct role in making humans who we are today. Since life started in the oceans, and seaweed provides essential vitamins like magnesium and zinc, it’s hypothesized that it may have had an impact on humans’ brain size and development.seaweedPhoto by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Seaweed and human health

This forgotten resource is now being rediscovered as a nutritious food source. There are a multitude of species, colours, textures and flavours of seaweed, and all are available for human consumption.

Seaweed is highly nutritious and depending on its season and where it was grown, it can contain high amounts of iodine, protein, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and magnesium. Its stock of fatty acids could provide some relief on fish consumption, replacing the source for these much-needed nutrients.

Iodine deficiency disorders have been the most prevalent in the world, with over 200 million people at risk of iodine deficiency as a result of iodine-poor soil, drinking water and food. Increasing our intake of seaweed can rectify this; however, we need to be mindful of our consumption to avoid seaweed that is high in toxins, as high amounts of seaweed can affect our thyroids.

Seaweed as a carbon sink

To add to seaweed’s impressive resume, it's also known for its ecological sustainability and ability to combat climate change as a carbon sink.

Like other plants, seaweed uses photosynthesis to grow biomass by absorbing CO2, only it does it at an estimated 50 times greater than forests (which explains how 90 percent of the world’s carbon is held by oceans). A study even suggests that if nine percent of oceans were covered in seaweed farms, it would be able to absorb all human emissions.

Seaweed requires very little infrastructure and no chemical inputs in order to grow at an exceptionally quick rate. It receives all of its necessary nutrients from the water around it, and cutting the leaves at the right time in the plant’s life supports quick regrowth and provides generous yields while removing more CO2 from the atmosphere.

Its most beneficial quality is its ability to add oxygen to water and filter seawater of excess nutrients, reducing its acidification. By reducing the acidity levels of the ocean water, seaweed gives fish better conditions to live and grow, prompting a more balanced ecosystem.

Incorporating more seaweed

As with all new sustainability research, it’s important to tread lightly before diving into turning our oceans into seaweed farms. It’s still uncertain how monoculture seaweed farming would interact and affect other marine life and ecosystems, and what the long-term impacts would be.

If anything, we can see seaweed as one part of a whole. It can open up new materials research that could include everything from: biodegradable plastics to construction materials, animal feed, cosmetics, and even ice cream due to its texture. Along with supplying an alternative stream of income for coastal communities reliant on fishing, seaweed provides a great variety of options to feed our growing population and reduce past and future harm to the planet.