Food for Thought, New Materials

Recap SYMBIOSIS Deep Dive – Circular seaweed supplychain

BlueCity Symbiosis Lowres-Jacqueline Fuijkschot-62

In the ballroom of BlueCity, a diverse group of seaweed enthusiasts are gathered to have a long conversation on the circular supplychain around seaweed during the first SYMBIOSIS symposium on 13th of May. There are students, companies such as North Sea farmers, Blueblocks, Zeefier, Kelp.Blue and Gemeente Rotterdam, but also engineers, designers and an investor. Lots of perspectives for a fruitful conversation on this topic. In this blog, Maarten Belt wrote down the key elements to share with fellow and future enthusiasts.

Why is seaweed as a resource still more a dream than reality?

One of the challenges of seaweed is that there is a “chicken and egg problem”. People are interested, but there are not yet many production sites. Besides, there are not many applications that meet demand in the market or that are ready as product. The approach of the Dutch seaweed sector is to grow up together meeting demand and establish the right circular valuechain at the same time. The way how seaweed is produced determines a lot of the impact: it should be produced in the right way to make sure that we are using a biobased product locally instead of buying it from Asian suppliers. There are no quality standards or legal documents for seaweed yet, which makes it difficult to rely on the quality and to know if it is produced in an environmental friendly way. There should be more transparency on the production process of seaweed.

Asia vs European market

The Asian market is responsible for production of 99% of the seaweed. 1 % of the seaweed is produced in Europe. Competing with the Asian market is difficult. It is very labour-intensive, lots of chemical fertilizers are used to speed up growth, leaving whole ecosystems damaged, and in the drying process, a lot of chemicals are added to process the seaweed more easily. 

An opportunity is that seaweed grows abundantly on shores all over the world. Yet, there are more future businesses looking at the sea: our Northsea is crowded and it is difficult to find space to grow seaweed. There are pilots to grow seaweed at offshore wind parcs. But to grow seaweed offshore is way more difficult than to grow it close to the shore, because of the bigger ships that are needed as well as offshore licences and time and transportation costs to get there. 

But we should not only focus on how seaweed is produced in Asia. In Europe, we are good in innovation. For example in Norway, they use auto harvesting which is safer and more specific. In Asia mostly red seaweed is produced. In Europe we work with brown seaweed which has other characteristics. We can use our knowledge to establish an environmental-friendly supply chain.

Wild harvesting vs cultivation

Seaweed grows in the wild and by planting out seedlings in a coastal area. When you harvest wild seaweed it is only sustainable on a very small scale, since otherwise the balance in the ecosystem can be disrupted. That’s why many pioneers look at cultivation of seaweed on a larger scale because the seaweed that is harvested from these ropes can be replanted easily. Also, first research shows that a seaweed farm creates extra biodiversity in coastal areas, where fish and other species can shelter. 

Opportunities for a circular seaweed economy

The Netherlands is world-famous for horticulture and water management. Those two sectors combined gives a nurturing ground for a seaweed sector. The group addressed some thresholds that form barriers for growth.

  • Make it easier to invest in seaweed. Investors are risk adverse. They need to understand the risks of investing in seaweed and what is the return on investment. A good roadmap is required. It is good to asses where you can make smaller investments in markets that have high potential. In this way that market can grow and help to grow also other seaweed markets. 
  • Focus not only on product quality but also on aesthetic quality and what the customer wants. Sushi is a good example of how this has impacted the market. Sushi was fist made with seaweed on the outside. Because the European market did not like the idea of eating seaweed the appearance of sushi was changed. Now the seaweed is on the inside so it is less visual and more accepted by the European customer. The customer can also help us to force the industry to get the right certifications. 
  • Between laboratory and industry production, there is a missing link. More funds are required for facilities.
  • Also look at other sectors with similar challenges. What were their challenges and how did they overcome this.

This recap is written by Maarten Belt, who joined this deep dive to jut the harvest of the conversation.