Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the Seagriculture seaweed conference that took place in Galway. It was inspiring to meet so many people working hard to develop a seaweed industry around the world, as well as being extremely informative as to where the industry stands at present.
The conference discussed the global seaweed industry from the perspective of European and American seaweed producers and it is clear that the ‘West’ has a long way to catch up with our Asian counterparts. There was much discussion on pricing and it was proffered by some that for the ‘Western’ seaweed industry to compete with Asia, seaweed prices would need to come down to a price of €50/dry tonne (this was also considered to be the price in which biofuels could economically be made from seaweed and be used as a feed in beef and dairy agriculture).
The difficulty with this is the sheer volume of seaweed that would need to be farmed in order to bring the price down so low (and the space required to do so is also problematic!). As a lover of seaweed as a food, I would welcome the cost of seaweed being reduced so that it is accessible to more people around the world to consume as a food.
However, I struggle with the idea of reducing the cost of seaweed so low just so that it becomes economically viable to use as a feed for cattle. I would like to think that seaweed aquaculture is a sustainable vegetarian food source for humans in an environmentally challenged and climate damaged world. I have my concerns about diverting what is an extremely nutritious food source away from direct human consumption, simply to provide a cheap feed to further the production of beef and dairy products which, from the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions and resource usage (water, feed, land) is both inefficient and environmentally destructive on an industrial scale.
There is a bit of noise at the moment on the topic of a seaweed diet being the saviour of livestock farming from the perspective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cows. Indeed, the seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis has been found to reduce methane production in cattle by 58%. This seaweed is not found all over the world and would certainly need to be farmed for it to be a real workable solution to the methane problem.
However, I think this misses the point. In a world where summer droughts are a new reality in parts of the world where summers of rain used to be the norm (Ireland!), it seems environmentally irresponsible to pursue increased cattle production by means of feeding cows seaweed when seaweed is a healthy and nutritious food source in and of itself. Why waste perfectly good food on cattle to chase a way of life that is no longer sustainable? (That’s rhetorical, I know, money, jobs, tradition, systemic rigidity are all perfectly valid reasons). I know these musings are somewhat blasphemic living on an island obsessed with dairy and beef exports, but if governments don’t listen to voters, consumer spending is one way to get a message to those in charge.
I for one don’t drink milk. I prefer to get my vitamins and minerals, calcium included, from seaweed and shellfish. I also don’t eat beef. I avoid these foods not because I am vegetarian or vegan but because it is my little way of sending a consumer driven political message to those that do the number crunching, that I don’t support the beef and dairy sector on an industrial scale. My hope is that as more consumers take this form of action, governments will be encouraged to support cattle farmers to move into more sustainable forms of food production - namely integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, but they can’t read my mind!
Butter is a more difficult habit to shake and while I don’t use it very often, I would always choose it over any substitute that contains palm oil!
Being a consumer is tough, especially when you have an awareness of the environmental and social consequences of your purchases. We can never really make perfect choices and will always have to bear some environmental footprint; but, we can all do our part to minimise that footprint. And little, by little the small changes we make in our daily lives can make a big difference.
“If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.” - Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Sinead O’Brien is the creator of Mungo Murphy, and is, like Mungo, a phycophile, shellfish lover and a wrangling environmentalist.