Are sea vegetables the future of produce?

Published July 16, 2020 10:22 p.m. ET

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TORONTO -- As global warming transforms our planet and farmers search for sustainable ways to grow food, the answer may lie in the ocean.

Sea vegetables grow rapidly and require zero fresh water, and a team of researchers at Florida Atlantic University who studied the salt-loving plants are optimistic that they could be a game-changer in the way we shop for groceries.

“The wonderful thing about these is that you just need salt water,” Megan Davis, a professor of aquaculture at Florida Atlantic University, told CTV News Channel in an interview on Thursday.

Her team spent 10 weeks studying the optimal growing conditions for sea asparagus, sea purslane and saltwort. All three species are traditionally foraged in coastal countries in Europe and Asia but have yet to reach mainstream produce aisles in North America.

The researchers were able to grow more than 100 pounds of the plants in six tanks, a result they say proves the veggies are efficient growers. The plants, also known as halophytes, are also relatively low waste, with the average edible portion ranging from 55 per cent for the sea purslane to 72 per cent for the sea asparagus and 75 per cent for the saltwort.

Based on this, Davis says her team sees “quite a trend” for sea vegetables in the future.

“There are quite a number of people and restaurants who are very excited to include them as part of their menu,” she said.

Better yet, Davis says, the vegetables are tasty. She described sea asparagus as a saltier version of its terrestrial cousin. Plus, it’s loaded with nutrients.

“So what’s amazing about these sea vegetables is they have a lot of different minerals, because they’re taking the minerals from the sea, and sometimes terrestrial plants don’t have all of these same types of minerals. One thing that sea vegetables do have is a lot of iodine, which is very healthy for us.”

Mariculture — the cultivation of food from the sea — has long been touted as a major player in the search for sustainable food. Research suggests that the world will need to produce 50 to 70 per cent more food by 2050, and global warming has worsened drought conditions in many countries, making traditional farming approaches that rely on fresh water more challenging.

The World Bank Group has said seaweed production could represent “a transformational change in the global food security equation” and could also become a greater source of food for livestock.

Sea vegetables have been on foodies’ radars for years. In 2018, Dutch global insights platform Innova Market Insights predicted the “ocean garden” would become a major food trend.

Speciality grocery stores like Whole Foods and Thrive Market already stock a variety of sea vegetables, including seaweed, kelp and dulse, a chewy, red-leafed plant that can be added to salads and soups or eaten as a healthy snack.

In Japan, seaweed has long been a dietary staple and is traditionally used in sushi and salads. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the seaweed industry was valued at about US$6 billion ($8.1 billion) in 2012.

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