The Potential of Seaweed: Pre-Summit Interview with Vincent Doumeizel, Director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation
We caught up with Vincent ahead of his panel ‘Seaweed & Algae Commercialisation: Food, Feed & Biorefining‘ at the inaugural Blue Food Innovation Summit to find out why interest in seaweed production, processing and utilisation has grown exponentially in recent years.
Vincent Doumeizel is Director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Author of a new reference book “The Seaweed Revolution“, currently available in France and soon to be translated into English.
Why is seaweed exciting right now?
Because Seaweed has the potential to address some of the most pressing global challenges faced by our generation. The ecological, social and climate emergency forces us to consider again what may well be the greatest untapped resource we have on the planet. 12,000 years ago, human beings moved from prehistory to modern history when they stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers growing crops on land. But we never did this with oceans and remain in the Stone Age. This led to the destruction of entire ecosystems. Yet we are the first generation to realize that our food systems cannot produce enough on land to feed 10 billion people in 2050. Today, 800 million people are going to bed hungry in the world while one child in every four is stunted. Meanwhile, the oceans cover more than two-thirds of our planet and currently contribute to less than 2% of our food in calory supply. If we want to enter a civilization that restores the ocean ecosystems instead of destroying them, seaweed is a very good place to start. Macroalgae is the first trophic level, it feeds phytoplankton and the first part of the food chain. Seaweed can really help to restore biodiversity in oceans. The seaweed tides faced in Brittany, Caribbean or elsewhere have given tainted these organisms with a bad reputation. Seaweed are, however, only the symptom of the problem. This actual problem is the extreme soil pollution and the intensive agriculture run offs always ending up in the oceans. These seaweed tides only act like an immune for the ocean. They absorb the excess of nutriments in order to protect life below water. Moreover, these seaweed tides only related to wild algae.
Are there any new technologies or projects on your radar that our audience should be aware of?
The great challenge of our generation should then be to domesticate Seaweed. The Kelp Blue project in Namibia already received 65M$ to develop the first ever large scale offshore seaweed farms and we are prototyping seaweed farming in many places around the western world.
There are 12,000 very different types of seaweed and, so far, we only know how to grow ten to twenty of them. Mostly from Asia! Seaweed were the first complex living organisms on this planet. Half a billion years ago, green seaweed moved on land and created all the plants we see around us. This wide range of genetic diversity offers an equally wide range of application.
Chefs around the world are considering seaweed as a new gustative territory to explore. In the meantime, Notpla in UK is progressing very fast to use seaweed as a very sustainable source of packaging. New type of garments are designed based on seaweed. Seaweed is also more and more used as animal feed, plant biostimulants or new medicines. On this last, China has just developed a treatment against Alzheimer using seaweed. M. We will have to learn from the past experience in the ocean to build a sustainable future on land. As such, seaweed is an unlimited source of innovation.
There has been similar excitement and hype around the potential of seaweed for many years, what is different now and what new commercial opportunities have arisen?
The number of seaweed innovative start-ups and SMEs has almost tripled in Europe in 10 years. The need for new Nature Based Solutions makes it obvious. The initial hype around seaweed back 200 years ago was for biofuels. We realized it would not be possible. But seaweed for food is not a dream. It’s there already in Asia. Today, more than 35 million tons of seaweed are produced worldwide. 98% of them come from Asia where they are cultivated. This sector is generating 15 billion dollars of revenues growing at 10% a year and employing more than 8 million people. France has the second largest maritime territory in the world, an internationally recognized centre of expertise in Brittany and an exceptional algal biodiversity, still France represents only 0.1% of global seaweed production. And still 99% of this very limited production comes from wild seaweed collection which may sometimes endangers species. This resource is so far only cultivated properly in Asia while it does not require land, pesticides or fresh water. Seaweed needs only needs salt water and sun to grow. Still, we will have to learn from our mistakes on land and design an ocean permaculture that does not need monoculture, GMOs and industrial farming. Because properly used, seaweed is an almost free and restorative resource for our planet.
What is the investment landscape like currently for seaweed and algae production, harvesting and processing?
In 10 years, the European seaweed industry has seen an exponential growth in both the number and amounts of investments. The overall amount invested in European seaweed companies has grown by 24x between 2010 and 2020, growing from less than €900k annually in 2010 to more than €21.6m in 2020 (Source Seaweed For Europe Investor Memo). Similarly, the number of investments has grown by 34% on a yearly basis, from 1 to 18 transactions per year. This exponential growth does not even consider more conventional bank financing (as data is less publicly available). Also, the 2021 have already seen a significant important amount invested in European seaweed compared to 2020, which reinforces this optimistic trend. The growth in investments has also opened the door to an evolution of transactions from predominantly VC capital funding in 2010 to being driven by private equity and debt funding; a trend which emerged in 2014 and which has grown steadily over subsequent years.
The continued growth of grant funding highlights the recognition by the public sector and philanthropies of the importance of this nascent industry grow.
It is fantastic to have you involved with the first Blue Food Innovation Summit – who are you excited to meet at the conference?
Excited to meet with the pioneers of that blue revolution that are important to building a safer and more regenerative world! We may make the world a better place but it can only be altogether.
Vincent will be joined on his Seaweed Commercialisation panel by speakers from WWF, Kelp Blue, Ocean Rainforest and Oceanium. View the agenda to discover more.