IN the coming decades the world will be facing lots of problems — relating to food, fuel, and plastics. We need a sustainable solution for all these issues. The answer might be found in the sea.
It has been estimated that by 2050, the earth would have another 2.5 billion people to feed. The problem is that land is scarce and there’s not that much more suitable land for growing crops or raising livestock.
People could turn to seaweed, a very versatile source of nutrition that is really still very much untapped. Seaweed is not yet a common food item and for most people, their exposure to seaweed is the seaweed wrap they find in sushi rolls.
Actually there are many kinds of seaweed — 10,000 varieties by some estimates — but unlike terrestrial plants, almost all types of seaweed are edible. They are low in calories and carbohydrates, and are packed with lots of nutrients: protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. They are also a good source of iodine which can help keep your thyroid healthy.
The beauty of seaweed cultivation is that it doesn’t need soil as it doesn’t grow on land and it doesn’t need fresh water as it grows in the sea. That means it’s not in competition with other crops for agricultural land. Seaweed could be farmed along the coastline of beaches which cannot be used to grow normal crops. And the yield is fantastic. Soybeans can yield between 1.5 and 3 tonnes of protein per hectare of land. In contrast, seaweed can produce 7.5 tonnes of protein per hectare.
When people think of seaweed consumption, they think in terms of food. But seaweed can also be a source of fuel. Scientists say that commercial algae farms can produce between 18,927 - 37,854 litres of oil per 0.4ha, compared to just 1,324 litres of ethanol biofuel per 0.4ha, grown through crops like corn.
Replacing all US biofuel production with seaweed oil would require about 0.8 million hectares, which is a lot. But it would then allow up to 16 million hectares of agricultural land to be freed up and used for planting food crops rather than biofuel plants. Seaweed is particularly suited to be made into bio fuel. The carbohydrates in the tissues of seaweed can be converted into various types of fuel.
Because seaweed is buoyed by water, it does not need a woody compound like lignin (which land plants have) to help it stand up against gravity. Lignin, which resists degradation, makes it hard to create biofuels made from traditional biofuel crops. Seaweed would be much easier to convert into fuels. But these are early days for seaweed as a biofuel and a lot of research still needs to go into this to make it viable economically.
Although biofuel is a promising use of seaweed, this is not something that’s going to become mainstream anytime soon. Some researchers say it might be decades before we see seaweed-based fuels replace petroleum.
Speaking of petroleum, plastics are a problem this generation has to tackle because our planet has produced billions of tonnes of plastic which have gone into landfills and the oceans. Several innovative start-ups have come up with very interesting concepts.
Skipping Rocks Lab has produced something it calls Ooho which carries the slogan, “Water you can eat.” Wait, isn’t water something you drink? Yes, but Ooho, which is a cute edible water container made from brown seaweed, can actually be eaten. It looks like a plastic, transparent ball with water inside. The container is completely edible and you can literally eat that ball of water.
If this catches on, it could be a step towards replacing conventional bottled water in plastic containers. “The consumption of non-renewable resources for single-use bottles and the amount of waste generated is profoundly unsustainable,” says the company.
“The aim of Ooho is to provide the convenience of plastic bottles while limiting the environmental impact.”
Another company called Loliware is coming out with an edible straw made out of agar, which is extracted from red seaweed. So, after drinking your beverage, you can go right ahead and consume the straw too.
“Our world needs a radically new approach to our daily consumption of single-use plastics which too often go to landfill or pollute oceans,” says Loliware co-founder, Leigh Ann Tucker.
“Our solutions transform disposables into ‘plant fuel’ through composting, or ‘human fuel’ through consumption.”
It has been estimated that a mere 0.03 per cent of all the brown seaweed that can be found in the world could replace all of the traditional plastic bottles that gets thrown away every year. If seaweed based plastics can be made cheaply, it would solve our plastic problem. Plastic is said to be non-biodegradable. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. It can degrade but it would take centuries, like 700 years, for it to do so. In contrast, if a seaweed based plastic is placed in soil, it would biodegrade in about a month and a half. Big difference!
All of these things will take some time to come to fruition. But someday in the future, we’re bound to see seaweed based products everywhere — in the food we eat and in the containers that we use to store our food and drink; and also in the fuel we use to power our cars.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected] gmail.com