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Public Sector

Can kelp save the world?

Off the coast of North America, the waters of the Pacific Ocean are naturally producing a sustainable and safe food that could revolutionize how we eat.

The environmental impact of our food is well established. According to research published last year by the University of Oxford, food accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, with 60% of that due to animal agriculture.

From belching bovines to unseasonal strawberries, modern food production fueled by insatiable consumer appetites is causing serious harm to our planet.

We use more than half of all our habitable land for agriculture, and 70% of the fresh water we take from the lakes, rivers and reservoirs is used to produce food.

And that's just to grow it. Take into account the many hundreds and thousands of miles food travels to reach our plates – an average of 1,500 miles says the now-defunct WorldWatch.org – and it's easy to see how what we put into our mouths each day is causing serious devastation to the world at large.

Take that evergreen strawberry, for example. According to Foodmiles.com, a site that allows you to find out how far your food has traveled, the average strawberry embarks on a 2,334 mile journey to reach our plates.

As Sir David Attenborough recently said, “the moment of crisis has come” and, while he wasn't pointing the finger at globe-trotting strawberries, the bottom line is that we need to fundamentally reduce our impact on the planet – including what we eat.

According to the WWF, three quarters of the food we consume comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. Expanding our food palates, reducing our reliance on intensively-farmed animals and plants and decreasing our food mileage is good for us and the planet.

Kelp farming

One underrated food that holds a lot of promise is the humble seaweed. In the west we've never really taken to it beyond the wrapping that surrounds our favorite California roll. But in the far east it's a daily staple.

The chef Jamie Oliver even attributed a diet of seaweed to his two-stone weight loss, calling it “the most nutritious vegetable in the world”.

The benefits of seaweed are great: it doesn't require fresh water, land or pesticides. All you need is sunlight and seawater. It grows incredibly quickly – the large kelp can grow one meter a day – so it's a sustainable food source that recovers quickly. Plus it absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide, helping to deacidify the oceans.

In British Columbia, Louis Druehl PH.D has spent a lifetime researching and lecturing on kelp, a wild sea vegetable that thrives in the crisp cold waters of the Barkley Sound. He's even had a new kelp genus named in his honor and for 35 years has run Canadian Kelp, a small food business cultivating and harvesting kelp and selling it to BC restaurants and shops.

“Our model was one of simplicity”, writes Druehl on his blog. “We would remain small, essentially a Mom and Pop business that would produce unadulterated kelp products, kelp, just kelp. Our motto was from the beach to the shelf. Our first product was Roasted Kelp Flakes, a kelp-only condiment to be used as a salt substitute.”

But these days kelp is much more than a condiment. Google 'kelp recipes' and you'll find everything from vegan and gluten-free seaweed burgers to cauliflower mac and cheese infused with seaweed. And as it's rich in 'umami', seaweed has a natural savory flavor that gives it the characteristic taste of meat.

Blue Evolution, stationed further along the Pacific coast in Alaska, sells a penne pasta made with sea lettuce. As its founder, Beau Perry, says: “I believe seaweed is in many ways the most virtuous material on earth”.

The clean, clear waters of Alaska are undergoing a kelp boom and companies like Blue Evolution have set up large aquaculture farms to bring the seaweed process closer to home. Until recently, 98% of the seaweed consumed in the US was imported, said Beau.

In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “As we deal with climate change and the movement towards plant-based diets, all of those trends play towards seaweed being a new sort of star ingredient.” Kelp is fast becoming the new kale.

Satellite tracking

Managing the kelp forests is no mean feat. Seaweed is one of our most abundant and fastest-growing plants and these large forests can move over time or be wiped out by climate change. A century or more ago, nautical maps showed the distribution of kelp to help sailors navigate through it but these days researchers are using satellite imagery to trace the historical change of kelp.

“I've spent many, many years staring at satellite imagery trying to come up with new ways to extract the kelp signal from that imagery, and it is very time and work intensive,” said UCLA researcher Kyle Cavanaugh, “But automated classification methods just don't produce acceptable levels of accuracy yet.”

That's where the idea for the Floating Project comes in. Using 'citizen scientists', an army of more than 2,700 volunteers analyses 250,000 satellite images to map kelp to build our understanding of this maritime marvel – and potential food source of tomorrow.

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