A recent report by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy has highlighted the potential for regenerative seaweed farming along with marine protected areas to help to restore ocean health, yet it is “greatly underdeveloped compared to its advantages and biological potential”. This builds on growing recognition of the role that an upscaled and responsible seaweed industry can play in delivering the sustainable development goals. But the report also clearly identifies the challenges, particularly to ensuring that such growth is inclusive and equitable.
Small-scale fishers produce almost all of the globally most cultivated seaweeds, eucheumatoids. It is estimated in the Philippines alone that over 1 million people are dependent on seaweed farming of these species. Currently they do this through low tech and inexpensive practices that generate significant benefits; key characteristics that make it widely accessible and therefore offering a gender equitable opportunity within communities.
Much of the current high-level focus and funding is on developing offshore commercial seaweed farming. Whilst this is of course important in the long-term, such arrays require significant levels of sub-sea infrastructure and investment, and the engineering solutions are still a work in progress. Employment on such arrays can never reach the level afforded by small-scale seaweed farming practices. My experiences from working in fishing communities for decades, and backed up by plenty of broader livelihoods research, is that fishers do not take well to wage labour, so labour on such arrays is unlikely to benefit many of the small-scale fishers. If all the investment is made in commercial seaweed farming then it is highly possible that commercial seaweed farming will eventually drive down the price of seaweed and undermine the livelihoods of small-scale producers. It is imperative that we learn from the past mistakes of fisheries where commercial fishing provides less than 10% of employment, generates over 70% of global catch (50% of seafood for human consumption), and drives some of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the oceans. Small-scale seaweed farming is not by definition sustainable, but it certainly can be done sustainably. And with the right support, small-scale seaweed farmers can increase production efficiencies.
All the expertise and technology required to sustainably scale-up small-scale seaweed farming, whilst preserving the social benefits, exist. Seaweed farmers need access to regular new seedstock, just like other forms of agriculture. They need access to appropriate finance and crop insurance, just like in other forms of agriculture. And they need access to updated and improved farming and processing methods that keep up with changes in the climate and market demands, just like other forms of agriculture. Finally, they need fair access to market. As a biomass market with relatively few processors, seaweed farmers would do best to join forces in order to negotiate better prices than trying to shop around individually for the best prices.
At Coast 4C we help connect seaweed farmers to these services or provide them directly, building on our extensive research on the livelihood needs of seaweed farmers. We leverage our expertise in establishing and building capacity of social infrastructure (like cooperatives) to increase efficiencies and the community market share. And technology developments such as Koltiva‘s SeaweedTrace, leveraging their experience in similar systems for cocoa, coffee and rubber can make a significant difference to help ensure efficient management of a rapidly growing supply chain with large numbers of small-scale producers.
The solutions exist. The challenge now for us all is to start believing and investing in small-scale producers.