This article is part of an exclusive Material Monday collaboration between Nirvana CPH and Seetal Solanki, materials expert and founder of Ma-tt-er.
Since algae first emerged – according to scientific estimates – around three-and-a-half billion years ago, it has flourished to become, according to some, the most important organism on earth. These single-celled marine plants produce between 75 and 80 per cent of the world’s oxygen, a key component in the air we breathe, and supply the energy required to support diverse coastal marine life and habitats for invertebrates and fish, underpinning the functioning of coastal ecosystems worldwide.
Seaweed is a marine macroalgae – a multicellular, plant-like organism that attaches itself to rock or other hard substrata in coastal areas. There are more than 1500 species of green, 200 species of brown and over 7000 species of red seaweed; each variety has different properties and attributes, enabling us to utilise in numerous ways this abundant organism that exists in the world’s oceans.
Complex and versatile, seaweed has become much more than an edible aquatic vegetable. Over the course of human history, it has been appropriated and transformed into fibre, furniture, energy solutions and housing.
Foraging for wild seaweed was a popular pastime in the Victorian era, and remains, at its core, similar to the way in which we farm and forage on land. Edible species such as dulse, kelp, carragheen, laver and gutweed are easy to recognise, unlike their more ambiguous land-dwelling neighbours, fungi and flowering plants.
Hanan Alkouh, a recent graduate from the Material Futures masters programme at the UAL’s Central Saint Martin’s, has addressed what we could be eating in a post-meat world by creating a collection of Sea-Meat. Alkouh discovered that when dulse – an edible variety of seaweed – is deep-fried it tastes like bacon. It’s a revelation that could provide one alternative to the harmful effects of the meat farming industry, often cited as a primary factor in rising levels of carbon dioxide.
At present, 98 per cent of our food and energy is the product of land-based agriculture. Seaweed, which grows much faster than the majority of vegetation cultivated on land, could offer huge benefits to the environment.
70 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered by water; the ocean, therefore, has the potential to become a major resource for biomass energy. As well as encouraging little or no conflict for space on land, ocean farming has no need for freshwater, or for the use of potentially harmful fertilisers and pesticides.
In the end, it’s all a question of energy. Seaweed, like all plants, harnesses the power of sunlight to fuel a chemical process that ultimately provides a biomass energy that can be applied in the production of food, health products and cosmetics. As this method continues to grow, so do the opportunities for this extraordinary living organism.