Kelp help? How Scotland’s seaweed growers are aiming to revolutionise what we buy | Environment

Think sun, sea, Skye – and seaweed. It’s early summer off the west coast of Scotland, and Alex Glasgow is landing a long string of orangey-black seaweed on to the barge of his water farm. It emerges on what looks like a washing line heavy with dirty rags, hoicked up from the depths. And yet, this slippery, shiny, salty substance might, just might, be going to save the planet.

When it comes to sustainability, seaweed is about as shipshape as it gets. Minimal damage to the environment, check. No use of pesticides, check. Diversifies ocean life, check. Uses no land, check. And, in the case of Skye’s seaweed farm, spoils no one’s view, check.

Indeed, a few minutes earlier, as we sped across the Inner Sound between Skye’s second-biggest settlement, Broadford, reputedly the birthplace of Drambuie, and the tiny island of Pabay, it was hard to work out the seaweed farm’s location. Eventually the boat slows as we near a few floats bobbing around on the water. They are the only visible sign that anything is happening here, yet below the surface is an underwater grid stretching 500 metres by 200 metres, growing about 8km worth of lines of kelp. The annual yield of seaweed, Glasgow explains, is now about seven tonnes. “It’s perhaps the quickest-growing biomass on the planet,” he says. “At this time of year, peak growing season, it can double its size in a fortnight – so five tonnes of seaweed today will be 10 in two weeks.”

Photographer Christian Sinibaldi and I are here as part of a trip organised by the WWF to focus attention on Scotland’s burgeoning seaweed industry – what it is now, and what it could become. This unremarkable patch of water is the starting point: Glasgow and his partners, Martin Welch and Kyla Orr, set up this seaweed farm, KelpCrofters, four years ago. Like many we’ll meet in the seaweed business, they’ve migrated here from other industries: Glasgow worked in forestry, Welch in fishing, Orr in fisheries management. Like others in this business, they say they’ve come to work in seaweed because they want to feel optimistic about the future of the environment – and with seaweed, there’s a lot to feel optimistic about.

Most of the past four years, says Glasgow, have been spent adapting machinery and devising mechanisms to allow the seaweed not only to grow, but to be harvested and transported efficiently to shore. Glasgow is a wiry 54-year-old with an air of schoolboyish adventure about him: there’s a frontier feel to this industry. He spends his days trying to work out solutions to teething troubles no one has ever had to think about before – not in this part of the world anyway.

Seaweed isn’t a new product in the west of Scotland: in the Hebrides it has been collected on beaches for centuries, and used in everything from soil fertiliser to artisanal soaps to glass-making. In the 19th century it was used for iodine, making the city of Glasgow the world centre of its production.

But the difference then was that the seaweed had grown naturally, and harvesting was basically foraging, sometimes chest-deep in water at low tide. KelpCrofters is different: this is cultivated seaweed farming, with the potential for industrial-sized yields. The kelp-seeded lines are “planted” in the autumn, left to germinate through the winter, and harvested, as we’re seeing today, after the peak growing season in May and June. Between planting and harvesting, little input is required.

Oceanium video of aerial footage around Skye showing the boats on the kelp farm at work and a shot of what looks like a factory or office buildings

“Seaweed has everything it needs – no fertilisers, pesticide or land required. We just leave it to grow and while it’s growing it’s also providing a habitat for fish – and it’s cleaning the water of harmful heavy metals,” says Orr.

But here’s the rub with seaweed: no one knows what’s going to happen next. “There’s a bottleneck – we’ve been bringing too much of it ashore,” says Orr. “We’re focusing now on what happens when we get it out of the water.”

There are all sorts of potential uses for seaweed, from plastic substitutes to beauty products to food supplements, and many more besides. The problem is, it’s far from clear which pathway will take off big-time – and that has all sorts of implications for its development as an industry, starting with: when should the seaweed even be harvested?

“You bring the crop in earlier if it’s for food use, later if it will be used for fertilisers or packaging,” says Glasgow.

A few miles away inKyle of Lochalsh, Alison Baker and Jemima Cooper of Eco Cascade are standing by to receive the KelpCrofters harvest. Baker, who previously ran a plastic-free fashion label, founded Eco Cascade in 2022 to explore ways of taking seaweed to its next stage. At first, she says, the idea was to dry it.

“But that’s very energy intensive and though it could be good for some uses – food use, for example – we’re now more interested in preserving it wet, or putting it straight into a fermenting process to preserve the nutrients in a liquid,” she says.

Liquid or dried, what happens to it next is the focus at Oceanium in Oban, a three-hour drive down the coast, which is our next port of call. Like everyone else in this story, no one at Oceanium (company slogan: “Kelp the World”) knows exactly how seaweed is going to revolutionise the future of the planet, but they’re convinced that somehow, it will.

  • Dr Mariam Aigbe, Oceanium’s technical services manager – foods, with some of the bread she made; a sample of the products made by Oceanium, which include food supplements and face cream

We’re fed bread made from seaweed washed down by seaweed smoothies – I’m pretty sure this isn’t the future, and am grateful to hear attempts to develop chocolate made from seaweed have been axed because it tasted too awful. However, research on seaweed-based face creams is looking good (they can reduce redness, it seems, and may have anti-ageing properties), and there’s excitement over possibilities of using seaweed to make the film that covers dishwasher pods, as well as adding nutrients to food supplements.

The product that most piques the interest of two of my companions, Emma Talbot and Harland Miller, is ink made from seaweed: they are artists recruited by the WWF to produce work linked to the seaweed industry for a project called Art For Your Oceans. They’re each given bottles of the ink to take home, so watch this space. The big questions around seaweed continue to drift, but the art is coming soon. And eventually, the answers – from which we all stand to benefit – will be on the end of the line as well.

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