Belgian scientists look to mass algae farming for future of food reserves

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By Isabel da Silva
Kelp is cut from a line during a spring harvest of farm-raised seaweed.
Kelp is cut from a line during a spring harvest of farm-raised seaweed.   -   Copyright  Robert F. Bukaty/Copyright 2021 The AP.

A group of researchers in Belgium are studying large-scale algae farming as strategic food reserve of the future.

A pioneering pilot project is currently going on at an offshore wind park that lies 50 kilometres off the country's nutrient-rich North Sea coast.

The goal is to research the mass farming of seaweed, a healthy vegetal protein for human and animal consumption.

According to Jessica Knoop, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ghent University Phycology Research Lab which is involved in the study, a lot more effort and money need to go into the evolving industry.

"To scale up or help this industry evolve [we need] to make legislation easier, for example, acknowledging seaweed as a food product but also funding-wise, the European sector still needs some research, so that we can grow local species in our natural environment," she told Euronews.

The project, called UNITED 2020, also has teams in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Greece.

It benefits from a €9 million investment with financing from the European Commission's research programme Horizon 2020 and partners from within the private sector.

Wind farm contractors and other industrial businesses are also interested in the future commercial potential of the industry and new technologic developments could soon come around too, as Olivier de Clerck, head of Ghent University Phycology Research Lab explains.

"If we grow seaweed 50km offshore, you may want to think about how you can monitor the growth of seaweed, so there are small start-ups that are building marine robots," de Clerck told Euronews.

"There are a lot of start-ups and research projects that look into biorefinery [in terms of] getting compounds out of seaweeds that we really need for various applications: food, [animal] feed, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals."

Wind farms are keen partners too because, in the area surrounding these platforms, no fishing or shipping is allowed.

Seaweed farming can also help develop the production of oysters and mussels, as well as restore natural ecosystems. It also helps remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, vital in the fight against climate change.