Canada’s coastline is 71,261 kilometres long. It touches the North Pacific, Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. And a growing number of Canadian companies want to capitalize on all that space to grow … seaweed snacks?
It would be more accurate to say they’re looking to develop an edible seaweed industry – one that will not only meet growing global interest in this aquatic food item, but also expand Canada’s agricultural sector in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way.
Though seaweed has been a staple food item in Asian cultures and among coastal Indigenous nations in Canada for centuries, it is now receiving increasing attention from North American consumers. So far, this is largely focused in the wellness sector, leading Whole Foods to highlight farmed kelp as one of its top food trends for 2023.
According to the report, merchandisers are “seeing it in noodles, chips, fish-free ‘fish’ sauce and beyond. As consumers seek out alternative ingredients and experiment with new flavours, kelp-inspired foods are gaining popularity.” According to Pinterest U.K.’s 2023 trend report, searches for terms like ‘seaweed snacks recipes’ are up 245 per cent. (Other aquatic plants, including green algae, are also trending up.)
Savvy Canadian business people are seeing this interest for what it is: an opportunity.
“It is no secret that the foods we eat have a significant impact on the health of the planet. Consumers are looking for food options that are healthier for the planet and for themselves too. Seaweed checks both of these boxes,” says Desirée Dupuis, VP, sales and marketing at Vancouver’s Cascadia Seaweed and founder of its consumer food brand, Kove Ocean Foods, which launched in spring 2021 after Cascadia noticed there was a growing demand for sustainable plant-based foods.
The health factor is compelling. “Seaweed is a superfood. Similar to its other green vegetable counterparts like kale and spinach, seaweed is rich in vital nutrients such as fibre, iron, iodine, folate, magnesium, Vitamin A, K and E, contains healthy fats and is low in sugar. Seaweed is good for the heart, good for the gut, and good for the brain,” Dupuis says.
But there are other factors at play here. Greater familiarity with seaweed thanks to the popularity of sushi and other Asian food traditions helps, as does social media – TikToker Emily Mariko’s salmon bowls, which she tops with crumbled nori, regularly went super viral in 2022.
But perhaps the most impactful influence is social consciousness. Consumers are increasingly interested in shopping their values, which means buying products from climate conscious and socially responsible companies. The farming process for seaweed offers both.
“Seaweed grows quickly, allowing harvest to occur within one growing season. It can be grown alongside other mariculture species such as mussels or oysters, contributing to a ‘polyculture’ growing method that supports the ocean in many ways, such as creating habitat or taking up excess nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon that can contribute to harmful algae blooms,” explains Mark Smith, president and CEO of the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association.
“In a time when the future of some economically important fish populations are uncertain, incorporation of seaweed into the seafood system can release pressure on other seafoods and support the livelihoods of coastal communities.”
What’s more, seaweed is a ‘low-input’ crop; it doesn’t require land, fertilizer or even need to be watered. In fact, unlike just about any other crop, its growth can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “New seaweed growth helps to mitigate ocean acidification and science has shown us that it has the power to sequester carbon at a rate up to 20 times more than trees and plants,” Kove Ocean Food’s Dupuis says.
From a social responsibility perspective, the industry is being led by west coast Indigenous communities, who have eaten seaweed for centuries. This is providing them with opportunities for economic development and improved food security.
And then there’s the pure economic potential.
“Given the limited number of cultivators currently, it is hard to meet demand and distribution needs,” Smith says, pointing out that in North America, 95 to 99 per cent of the seaweed used in food production is imported.
That’s why, he says, Canada has a significant opportunity to be a global leader in the industry.
“First and foremost, having one of the longest coastlines in the world creates an opportunity to scale the industry over time. Those in aquaculture related jobs can be cross-trained, often during a down time in their traditional harvesting season, thereby allowing for year round revenue,” says Smith. “And we have diversified growing areas such as the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic of which each comes with a unique growing opportunity of different species, for different applications.”
Not bad for a weed.