Are seaweed farms on oceans realistic as a solution for the climate ?

Author: Manu Steens

In the previous article I wrote down a wild idea about growing seaweed in oceans as a solution for the climate.

The actual origin of the idea was that I had seen seaweed in a shop in Antwerp in their range and the fact that I had read Bill Gates’ book, where I had my reservations about his idea of ​​​​capturing CO2 with technical solutions from the atmosphere. A basic chemistry course did the rest. But also the question whether Business Continuity Management could save the world from climate change. The idea came quickly that it will only be realized if there can be made a lot of money. And for that, industries have to be created. Possibly with creative destruction.

Today, however, I read some articles about seaweed, and oh wonder, the world has not stood still. It appears that a lot is already being done with seaweed. Time has not stood still in Belgium either. Techniques already exist, there is already a lot of knowledge and experience with cultivating seaweed, albeit on a small scale compared to what I deem necessary. But it gives courage. My first idea is certainly not contradicted. My idea is however somewhat different: let’s do that on the oceans, in ethically responsible places of course. Still the wild dream.

Suppose someone wants to draw up a project about it, what does he or she need to know, and where can they obtain information? For example, there is now talk of exploiting large seaweed breeding basins on land.

Things that need to be known are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to and from the world, which consists of each of us, but also of the environment.

Let’s focus on a SWOT here.

What are some opportunities?

  • A more than exponential increase and leap in food production, which will be necessary to continue feeding the many billions of people. Alleviate hunger in the world. In some countries in the world there are populations that (can) eat little or no meat. I am thinking of Buddhists in India, but also in Asian countries, where rice is currently often a main part of the diet, which makes the diet quite one-sided for large parts of the population. The benefits of this additional food source is an argument for its widespread adoption.
  • In addition to vegetable food, it is also possible to combine with the cultivation of shellfish.
  • Animal nutrition and fish nutrition, so that meat production does not have to be compromised, but also can increase the fish stock in the oceans.
  • Overproduction is virtually impossible, and even welcome, if handled properly.
  • A climate neutral way of producing fuel, which is already being worked on in the fuel sector. This provides an opportunity for creative destruction. A lot of money can be made in this sector, and that is an argument for developing this technology on a large scale.
  • The incredible mass of phosphates and other fertilizers that run off annually to the seas, is captured in the seaweed, so that using fertilizer might not be necessary. Which is also good for the fish stock. This also provides an opportunity for creative destruction.
  • Depending on the characteristics of the seaweeds used, fertilizers can be produced for the agricultural sector on land, because a cycle is created of the lost phosphates and other fertilizers that become available cyclically.
  • Scientific challenges and fun developing
    • logistics on oceans and on land
    • seaweed farms on a large scale as a kind of floating islands as well as
    • seaweed processing techniques that must be done immediately after harvesting. Seaweed does not store very well. This is accompanied by developments in machine construction in combination with shipbuilding
  • Political reinforcement of the countries of the OECD, but also politically unstable countries can benefit from this, such as some African countries, where the seas have been fished empty, and the water is otherwise only used for piracy.
  • Countries that invest early in these applications will quickly benefit financially.
  • Since the climate approach has to be done very quickly, these floating seaweed companies and all sectors around them must do everything they can to develop these technologies. This provides work in various sectors in addition to scientific research: job creation with regard to
    • Operating the farms
    • Logistics at sea and on land
    • The Shipment: passing food factories that produce food need hand on board
    • The trade of finished and partly finished products
    • Justice in international disputes
    • Creating legislation on exploiting the seas
    • Technology and specialized labor for shipbuilding, machine building, but also for building floating farms that must be storm-resistant.
  • As a bonus, we also get a more oxygen-rich atmosphere: trapping and binding the incredible amount of CO2 in the seas, allowing the seas to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, and even be able to deliver a fraction of 02. (This is the reverse of what is happening now.) The climate advantage thanks to this extra O2 source is an argument for applying it on a large scale.
  • As a second bonus, by growing on a large scale, the price of the finished products will be very low, while a large turnover can guarantee very large profits.

So far a number of opportunities that I can think of.

What are possible threats?

  • Seas and oceans are a hostile, an often unknown environment. There are gigantic storms. This complicates working in the logistics chain, the development and exploitation and the inhabitation of seaweed farms. Because in order to withstand the storms, the sea farms must be flexible to give in to the swells, but must contain rigid parts for “cabins”. For the benefit of the crew, stability of the sea farms is also necessary, so that the crew does not become deathly ill. Or to be able to drop them off and pick them up.
  • Hurricane areas will have to be actively avoided. 
  • Such islands may need to be able to dive like a submarine.
  • The safe, shallow, known coastlines may be suggested first to deploy these types of farms. However, that will be too small.
  • In my gut feeling, so many farms will be needed on the oceans that they could hinder international shipping, but also pleasure shipping with private yachts.
  • Shipping must be able to recognize and avoid the sea farms in time.
  • The sea farms must be known to all players, where they are located, who the owners are and who is present on them and when. This is partly to prevent or settle legal or political disputes.
  • Possible implicit political and military interests of the owners countries of this food production in relation to each other if “great powers” ​​arise in this production.
  • Vulnerable places in the oceans with great biodiversity must be respected.

Some possible strengths of “our” world.

  • There is already experience on a smaller scale with the cultivation of seaweed.
  • Seaweed grows very quickly.
  • The polytechnic engineers, mechanical engineers, shipping engineers and others can bring their knowledge together to develop a design of a prototype of a sea farm. Dr Brian von Hertzen of “the Climate Foundation” has already elaborated ideas on this. Some required specifications of such a sea farm are:
    • It must be virtually unsinkable but may need to be able to dive to avoid severe weather e.g..
    • Have a flexible enough structure
    • To be able to have a smooth crew embark and desembark
  • There is already some knowledge and practice on how to use seaweed
    • in the energy sector (this is a potential source of creative destruction) (biodiesel and combustible gases)
    • in the food sector
  • There is more awareness about the climate, and the urgency is slowly but surely better sensed.
  • Votes are raised for various reasons to start exploiting seaweed on a massive scale.
  • My experience is that if people want to realize something, they usually succeed.
  • Politics can very strongly “nudge” the private sectors through tax and other benefits for investors to make investors invest. This can be done both in terms of investments and returns.
  • Provided the right investments are made, parallel work can be done on knowledge and skills to cultivate seaweed under different circumstances: along the coastlines, on the wide oceans…
  • The OECD can play a prominent role because of its international role.
  • Political stability in the world could improve, because there could be less dependence on fossil fuels.
  • The lack of internationally agreed rules for setting up seaweed farms in international waters is more of a convenience than an inconvenience for entrepreneurs.

Some possible weaknesses of “our” world.

  • It takes a mind shift to use seaweed as a vegetable on a large scale. This takes time, which is scarce, so other derivative products must be created “en masse”.
  • The weather predictions at sea should perhaps be better known.
  • Potential political unwillingness to cooperate at an international level.
  • Possible disinterest of the economic world to invest in the development of the necessary techniques or not convinced about the possibilities.
  • The necessary sum of venture capital will be huge.
  • Too many politicians who do not yet believe in the climate problem, have too little will and priority for it and too much influence.
  • Science is not convincingly clear about the state of the climate and its causes: there is too much internal disagreement.
  • There is too little cooperation between the knowledge domains (technical, economic, political) for such a project and to succeed in the short term.
  • There are no international rules and laws in order to be able to operate these types of seaweed farms or sea farms without political entanglements. For example, what if a farm drifts into the territorial waters of a politically unstable country.
  • The techniques to be developed only partially exist. It takes time to develop these things at a normal pace. And time is running out. To make it go faster, politicians and the global economy must take the matter seriously, and be prepared to pump money into it at a fast pace, and with priority. Politicians can give a financial or other push to the potential investors.
  • Politically or monetarily unstable countries will be able to profit minimally from these achievements, unless international politics is used to provide insight into the benefits of participating politically in this.
  • Decomposition of dead seaweed can consume oxygen. Therefore, regular harvesting and processing is also necessary.

The answer is not yet given, whether seaweed farms on oceans are realistic.

To do this, the strengths and weaknesses should be linked to the opportunities and threats in a confrontation matrix that thereby defines projects and activities for each factor of a SWOT, for which this list above can be a first approach. This already shows that technical problems are not the only ones.

To this end, for an answer to the question of realism of development and a vision of cooperation over the feasibility of such an idea, there should be several fields of science and industrial sectors and the political world involved. A first idea for this is an organizational network of several communities of practice at each node of the network. They can then organize activities, partnerships, etc. to define feasible projects for issues in that confrontation matrix, once it has been established. If successful, it can be demonstrated whether the idea is feasible. After that, the super project has to start, on all fronts at once to save time and with a major advertising campaign for entrepreneurs . But those are all different ideas.

The interested reader can find more information here:

https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2021/05/19/gekweekt-zeewier-uit-onze-noordzee-Gezond-maar-duurt-nog-jare/?fbclid=IwAR3mL0ocvK6HreUOrXv_BM_Zx19osnzU1FB1K6PB1Dx2n02

https://www.zeewierwijzer.nl/zeewier/zeewier-marine-macro-alg/teelt/?fbclid=IwAR28MHy9j2YVQigTZ73266kd03UmOe8Zf9qqb_mV4WJlP2jif81zcB2ngV4

https://theconversation.com/how-farming-giant-seaweed-can-feed-fish-and-fix-the-climate-81761?fbclid=IwAR39NqJf61oj4G3ibPPPOyTl-OYP82SGTczFJxHhwCWGNlG3jF-8XOV4G3k

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seaweed_farming?fbclid=IwAR3mL0ocvK6HreUOrXv_BM_Zx19osnzU1FB1K6B1Dx2n02PBb6DMh7I7w30

The IPCC : Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate  

https://www.euronews.com/green/2020/06/09/seaweed-farming-an-economic-and-sustainable-opportunity-for-europe?fbclid=IwAR1C_ZUhZEc46cq6D7QUGllX_o5FFrlu5xBTBmYEtxC6lN82yHpIGMklFV

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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