“In Amsterdam, people always ask us whether we smoke weed every day. And weed is a little bit illegal, a little bit naughty. It’s a good way of getting people interested,” says Mark Kulsom, a Dutch entrepreneur with a background in history.
Seaweed can be used as an alternative to land-based production.
This is not exactly accurate. Cannabis and other soft drugs may be illegal in many places around the world, but they’re available in Amsterdam’s many coffee shops.
Anyway, it’s not cannabis that he wants everyone to feel excited about. It’s seaweed.
Five years ago, Kulsom and his colleague Lisette Kreischer founded a company called The Dutch Weed Burger after they shot a documentary about the role of seaweed as a future source of protein. Kulsom says the company’s mission is “to work on the acceptance of seaweed becoming a part of the new paradigm.”
Enter their first product: the weed burger.
At first, a seaweed burger seems like an unusual choice, but it begins to make sense after a while. The hamburger is already a global icon in the meat industry. And it’s the epitome of comfort food (there is something about greasy, saucy food you can eat with your hands).
But Kulsom, who is vegan, thinks that food free of animal proteins can be just as satisfying as meat, and seaweed seems like a logical choice because it can be used as an alternative to land-based production.
It also carries a number of benefits. “Seaweeds grow quite quickly. And nowadays, it’s good to have production systems you don’t have to fertilize, as they will use naturally available resources,” explains Sander van den Burg, a researcher in economy and sustainable development at the Wageningen University and Research. He adds somewhat jokingly, “And you don’t have to give them water.”
The Journal of Phycology estimates that there are 72,500 species of algae populating our seas, lakes, and ponds worldwide. About 9,000 of those are seaweed, and the North Sea grows five to six species that are used for human consumption.
The largest farms are based in the Dutch province of Zeeland, especially in an area known as the Oosterscheldte, or Eastern Scheldt. “It’s a relatively quiet sea, so there aren’t many waves, and the currents aren’t strong. It’s clean water. So it’s a good location for seaweed farming,” van den Burg says.
The maritime equivalent of agriculture is known as mariculture, the farming of marine species; the broader term aquaculture refers to aquatic farming, in both seawater and fresh water. Seaweed is propagated by spreading a long line between two anchors spread apart approximately 1 meter (about 3 feet). Seaweed seedlings (or propagules, as they’re called) are attached to the line and left to grow. Winter is the best time to plant them, with harvest usually taking place in April and May.
“If you can use seaweed proteins as meat proteins, you can reduce the total environmental impact that comes from the production of meat and soy,” explains van den Burg. Although soy is a popular meat substitute, its impact on the environment has been connected to deforestation and soil erosion; meat’s impact, which takes incredible land and energy to produce, is well documented.
The Dutch weed burger is made out of three types of algae: chlorella, a species of microalgae, to dye the bun a subtle green color; sea lettuce for the sauce; and royal Kombu, which grows in the winter and spring, for the burger itself. The Kombu used in the patty is farmed in the Eastern Scheldt province.
According to research from Sheffield Hallam University, seaweed is full of fiber, vitamins, trace elements, and proteins, and has several purported health benefits. “The beauty of seaweed is that there are trace elements that we can’t find in other places,” says Kulsom.
It’s also low in calories and can be used as a substitute for either vegetables or meat and other land-based proteins. In Japanese cuisine, it’s used in soups and salads, but it can be added to stir-fries or eaten as a side dish. Microalgae like spirulina and chlorella also act as edible dye.
Still, seaweed farming has a lot of potential, and the Dutch Weed Burger is just the first step.
Eating seaweed carries some controversy. Carrageenan, a seaweed extract added to meat and dairy products and used as an alternative to gelatin in vegan or vegetarian products, has been reported to cause inflammation. Iodine, an element in seaweed, can cause thyroid issues if overconsumed. This makes seaweed tricky: If we eat too little of it, we won’t get the nutritional benefits. But if we eat too much, there are health risks.
Still, seaweed farming has a lot of potential, and Dutch Weed Burger is just the first step.
Kulsom and his colleagues have recently launched the Dutch weed bagel, which is already sold in Bagels & Beans, a Dutch chain of bagel cafes. The next product is called weed bites, a vegan equivalent of typical Dutch food known as “kibbeling,” which are chunks of flaky, deep-fried fish.
Because climate change is a huge concern, Kulsom and his team don’t harvest wild seaweed. “We believe that seaweed grows in the ecosystems for a reason. We’re not going to harvest seaweed out of the environment because we don’t think it’s the sustainable way,” he says.
But there are many other obstacles to sustainable production of seaweed. Profitability is just one of them.
In Europe, seaweed isn’t as much a part of people’s daily diet as it is in many Asian countries. And labor is more expensive, and regulations are stricter. “Still, there are couple of seaweed companies that produce seaweed and make money because they can sell it for relatively high prices,” van den Burg explains.
“People have to be seduced to buy seaweed. And if there are more food products that contain it, its value will increase,” he adds.
While countries like China and Indonesia have a long tradition of seaweed cultivation, the Netherlands still lacks the developed infrastructure for that. “We’re still figuring out how to cultivate it in Europe; it really is something new,” van den Burg says, although he notes as an exception the Dutch tradition of collecting seaweed to flavor products like cheese.
But making the switch from agriculture to mariculture isn’t easy. First of all, it requires switching to totally different organisms. And the sea makes for a challenging environment because of the weather conditions such as waves and wind. “If you build something there, it has to be very high quality or otherwise it will be destroyed by the sea,” explains van den Burg.
He adds, “If we want to compete with land-based production, we need to bring down the costs.”
But lack of infrastructure is not the only issue mariculture faces in the Netherlands. “We need to take care of the environment. We need to take care of the people who work there,” van den Burg says. This is why finding new markets is important. He and his colleagues look to other potential uses for seaweed: green chemicals, fuels, animal feeds, bioplastics.
Seaweed seems to be popular at the moment, but van den Burg doesn’t want it to be just a trend.
He says, “I hope that seaweed will be a real and lasting addition to our diets. Because only then we can really reduce use of other land-based products and make use of its potential.”