I’ve never ordered seaweed in a restaurant or bought a seaweed snack at Whole Foods or pulled it from the ocean and crunched on it like a boss. My experience with the plant (there are many species) is mostly limited to being grossed out by it as a kid while walking through the swampy water of ponds near my home.

At the time, I never would’ve dreamed of eating it. In fact, I had hoped for its total obliteration so I could swim without feeling slimy. (Swimming back then also meant worrying about an imminent snapping turtle attack.)

Fast forward to earlier this week. I read a piece in The New Yorker by Dana Goodyear about how seaweed (aka kelp) is basically a miracle plant and how some pioneering fishermen, scientists, businessmen and chefs are bringing it to the mainstream.

It’s packed with nutrients, creates many good jobs and has astonishing ecological benefits.

That last part is what really fascinates me.

Rapid-fire explainer on seaweed and climate change

Seaweed can be farmed in columns that stretch to the seafloor, creating what one farmer calls a 3-dimensional farm. Seaweed is also very resilient--its rubbery structure allows it to move with waves.

Image: Flickr: National Ocean Service

Plus, it grows incredibly fast, as much as 18 percent a day.

All of this means it’s a good crop to grow in a world with more people and increasingly volatile weather.

Currently, humanity gets 2 percent of its food from the oceans. This is because the oceans are both underused (example: seaweed) and overexploited (example: Tuna and Swordfish).

All the world’s current agricultural output could be done in 1 percent of the ocean’s surface area. To put that into perspective: humanity allocates about 40 percent of all land mass and 75 percent of all fresh water to agriculture.

So if the world shifted to sea farming, land and freshwater sources could be rehabilitated and better conserved.

Columns of seaweed also act as sanctuaries. Many sea creatures are harmed by industrial runoff such as phosphorous, nitrogen and other pollutants as well as the acidification caused by the water’s absorption of excess carbon.

Seaweed can absorb these substances, purifying the water and allowing life--from the bottom to the top of the food chain--to thrive.

It has a negative carbon footprint. Negative. This property could go a long way toward healing the oceans.

One ton of dried kelp can contain up to a third of a ton of carbon, according to research.

Image: Flickr: Michael

While seaweed will never be able to absorb all the excess carbon that makes its way into the oceans, it can become an essential part of climate efforts.

Plus this shift to seaweed could have a big effect on economies around the world. Nothing happens in a vacuum. If the food industry shifted to sustainable farming of the ocean, then you can bet that reforestation, an end to harmful industrial agriculture and other eco-friendly moves would follow.

It might be a bit of wishful thinking, but I think seaweed could trigger some economic soul-searching.

In the underwater forests of seaweed farms you can find all sorts of fish and marine life. They’re magical places.

After learning all this, I’m tempted to become a seaweed farmer. What better way to help the world prevent the worst of climate change!

Some scientists, according to Goodyear’s research, predict the oceans could be fishless by 2050 due to changing waters, plastic and overexploitation.

This doesn’t have to happen.

If developing an appetite for seaweed is all it takes to avoid this, then that’s a pretty small price to pay. I’ll be heading to Whole Foods after work. Hope to see you there.


Defend the Planet

Can eating seaweed stop climate change?

By Joe McCarthy