Seaweed Is a Promising Food Tangled in Regulations

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As the popularity of harvesting and eating seaweed grows in America, a new Maine Public Radio investigation, along with other recent news, suggest that regulations—too strict in many cases, nonexistent in others—may be hampering the market from reaching its potential. 

Seaweed is the collective name for a variety of marine plants and algae. It’s a common food in many cultures, including in Japan and among many coastal Native American tribes. Seaweed is prized for its versatility, health benefits, and high degree of sustainability when compared to other foods. Various types of seaweed “can be used as fertilizer, animal and fish feed, biofuels, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics…. and have been marketed as a ‘super food’ containing dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, essential amino acids, calcium, iodine, magnesium and vitamins A, B, C and E.”

Harvesting seaweed is a topic that’s interested me at least since I discussed it in my 2016 book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, in a profile of a well-known California forager who helps guide paying customers to harvest everything from mushrooms to seaweed.

Seaweed demand has boomed in recent years. And raising and harvesting seaweed, which requires few inputs, can be lucrative. In Maine, commercial seaweed harvesting grew more than fivefold from 2018 to 2019. The global annual market for seaweed is already at least $6 billion.

“The economics are wonderful,” Joth Davis, a kelp farmer in Washington State, told the Pew Charitable Trusts recently. “Kelp isn’t difficult to grow, and it doesn’t use freshwater or added nutrients. The value proposition is really there.”

Seaweed proponents are aware of some ongoing challenges to increasing its popularity as a food, starting with its unsexy name: seaweed. But other challenges—particularly reports suggesting regulations appear to be hampering seaweed sales from growing even faster—amount to a higher bar to increased harvesting and sales.

The first (and seemingly lower) barrier seaweed farmers face is federal law. Under FDA rules, the Maine Public Radio report details, “seaweed isn’t really a food at all. Neither seafood nor vegetable, seaweed is regulated by the FDA as a spice because of its historic use as a dried product eaten in small quantities.”

The more onerous regulations in question occur at the state level, and pertain chiefly to food safety. That’s unfortunate, given that seaweed is a comparatively safe food. Foodborne illnesses caused by seaweed consumption are rare globally, and rarer still in the United States. While some studies have noted “concerns about the potential for seaweed to contribute to foodborne infections,” others have found seaweed contains antibacterial compounds that can hinder or destroy bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.

A study on seaweed and food safety, published in 2020 by Connecticut Sea Grant, in partnership with state government, was billed as the first of its kind. While the Connecticut guide is no doubt useful, that usefulness is largely undermined by a flawed assumption that seaweed should be regulated like other foods from the sea.

Indeed, the study reports Connecticut law regulates seaweed the same as it does other seafood. That’s highly problematic. Regulating water quality for seaweed production using standards for shellfish production, which Connecticut does, ignores the fact that seaweed—unlike shellfish—is not a filter feeder. That means seaweed can be safe to eat when harvested in waters that would be unsafe for harvesting shellfish, whether or not Connecticut allows it.

Very much to their credit, researchers in Maine appear to recognize this. For one thing, the goal of their research is to “help develop proper regulations that will protect eaters without overburdening the growing industry.” And, as the Maine Public Radio report implies, they recognize that regulations requiring seaweed to meet shellfish-related water quality standards is a needlessly onerous requirement. 

“We wanted to do this [study] because maybe seaweed shouldn’t be treated like shellfish,” Prof. Kristin Burkholder told MPR, helpfully distinguishing the study she’s leading from that carried out in Connecticut. 

While the question of how to regulate seaweed appears to be an open one among many states, in other states the primary regulatory challenge is more one of whom than of how.

Recall Joth Davis, the kelp farmer in Washington State? As Pew explains, he’s also the only kelp farmer working Washington’s waters legally. That’s because, despite demand, the state makes it nearly impossible for others to join Davis in his profession.

“Many others want to grow kelp in Washington’s waters, but Davis’ farm for now is the only one operating,” Pew reports. “The reason is simple: The state’s permitting process involves nine different agencies, and the paperwork is so burdensome and time-consuming that few people bother.”

Washington State isn’t alone. “Many coastal states have an equally cumbersome process to administer ocean aquaculture, [forcing] would-be farmers [to] face a tangle of red tape,” Pew also reports.

Seaweed is a tasty, abundant, sustainable, profitable, and healthy food. If you’re not eating it regularly, you likely have government red tape to thank for that fact.

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