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Seaweed Use in the Past & Present

According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, the 2013 global production of seaweed for use in cosmetics, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals, animal feed and food reached 28 million tonnes.
Of this, the total used for food (health supplements, gelling agents, and as a wholefood) was 9 million tonnes worldwide, an industry worth some 2.5 billion US dollars.

The UK & Ireland harvest less than 0.1% of worldwide production, with more than half in China.
Notably, worldwide seaweed production has doubled in last decade.

Seaweed has been used by mankind since the dawn of time, both as a food source and for use as a fertiliser. It was only around 10,000 years ago (relatively recently!) that we became farmers. In the 2.5 million years before that we were hunter gatherers and seaweed was an important part of the diet.

Some varieties (nori, kombu and wakame) are widely consumed in East Asia (with Japan being the world's largest producer, importer and consumer - with an annual per capita expenditure of approx $300), but other than some pockets of coastal communities where it is part of the traditional diet, it has not been used to any great extent in Europe.

Seaweed is used extensively in Chinese medicine, but is largely unexplored as a therapeutic agent in the west – although research is now being performed with exciting preliminary results.

The earliest recorded account of seaweed as a food source in the west is in a poem by St Columba from around AD 563, describing dulse boiled and tossed in butter, served with oatmeal. The monks on Iona collected dulse to provide food both for themselves and the local poor. Seaweed has long been associated with poverty, becoming a necessary supplement to those dispossessed during the Highland clearances between 1790 – 1820, and also in Ireland during the potato famine after 1846. Dulse, Carageen and laver have been eaten by coastal dwellers around the UK and Ireland for at least 4000 years.

Seaweed has been traditionally used in the farming industry, both as a fertiliser and an animal feed supplement.

Seaweed's ability to concentrate minerals and trace elements from the sea render them as a potent source of nutrients for vegetable cultivation. Storm cast seaweeds are collected from the shore, composted briefly, and dug into the soil to act as a fertiliser and soil conditioner. Before the advent of modern agriculture and factory produced fertilisers, coastal areas with increasing population densities would use the 'lazy bed' method of cultivation where seaweed was laid into wide trenches, left to compost for several weeks, and the trenches then filled with the dug out soil before being planted with potatoes or other root crops. Many generations farmed the same lazy beds with no other fertilisation required.

Seaweed has traditionally been used to supplement animal feed where available, but it is only with relatively recently transport infrastructure improvements that dried seaweed in commercial quantities has been able to be used in inland areas. The iodine present in milk (dairy is the largest iodine source in the UK diet) largely comes from seaweed, and a reduction in UK milk iodine levels can be correlated with decreasing use of seaweed supplement (due to a reliance on manufactured supplements, and authorities ceasing to recommend seaweed as a feed source) since the 1950s.

Many commercial companies still continue to manufacture and supply dried seaweed meal animal feed supplement, catering to the large sector of animal husbandry that recognises its benefits in health and productivity.

After a long period during which seaweed has been largely forgotten by researchers, science is now re-discovering and quantifying the benefits it can bring.

From the mid 17th century, seaweed has been used for a variety of industrial uses, kelp and wrack ash contains soda and potash – in the Scottish Highlands many of the paths used by harvesters can still be found, now sometimes named 'Wreck Road' – a corruption of 'wrack road', named after the collected knot wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum.

As the burning of kelp became less commercially attractive, iodine extraction became the main use of seaweed – at least until cheaper mineral deposits began to be imported from Chile, resulting in the death of the industry by the early 1930s. The research into what would become known as plastics, and the outbreak of the second world war, led to a resurgence in the processing of seaweed - to produce alginates which have a variety of uses, and are ubiquitous in many varying industries today.

Nowadays, with an increased awareness of the benefits of seaweed, increasing focus is being placed on seaweed as a valuable health food - with ongoing research both confirming widely held traditional beliefs, and discovering fascinating new aspects of this exciting algae.

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