Scale-Up Seaweed into The Global Food System to Address Nutrition Challenges, Improve Livelihood, and Reduce GHG Emission


We are only 4 more years left to meet the 2025 global nutrition targets: 40% reduction in the number of stunted under-5 children, 50% reduction of amenia in women of reproductive age, 30% reduction in low birth weight, zero increase in child overweight, 50% increase in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding, reduce and keep child wasting below 5%, but progress remains unimpressive. There are spots of progress but in many countries, we are seeing high undernourishment, obesity, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases overlapping each other. Adult obesity has increased, and 30 million more children could be stunted by 2025. Before COVID-19, at least 3billon people could not afford the recommended healthy diet. This number is expected to rise significantly, especially for people in poor and conflict-affected countries and for women and children as the COVID-19 disrupts access to food, slashes income, and pushes families to consume unhealthy food.

By Ambulah Abutumaga Mamey, Contributing Writer

The state of nutrition is worrisome because of the number of lives involved, but also because we know that the impact of malnutrition transcends the number of people it affects. Malnutrition can cascade through society, overburdens countries’ health systems, and can disrupt economic transformation. We have seen this spillover effect in Africa, where under and over-nutrition is respectively costing 3 and 16 percent of annual GDP, and treating child undernutrition is costing up to 11 percent of the continent’s already inadequate public health budget. Reversing this trend in Africa- especially by reducing chronic malnutrition by just 40%- could help Africa save and hopefully redeploy up to US$ 83 billion into fast-tracking its development process. Almost the same could be said for other parts of the world and in both cases, Seaweed can play unique complementary roles in achieving such milestones.

Diversified Food Systems, Not Only Health Systems, Will Address Global Nutrition Deficiencies

Health systems- all by themselves- will not address the corrosive global nutrition problem and prevent or reverse diet-related noncommunicable diseases, including child stunting, iodine deficiency in pregnant and lactating women, and heart disease, etc. We need to focus on diet, and this will require an urgent transformation of the food system which provides the diet.  Such transformation demands- among other things- that the crop agricultural production system is diversified enough to produce and supply the right quantity and quality of calorie-rich food and the right quantity and quality of micronutrients and mineral-rich food. We know that a lot of work has been done to diversify the food system but to date the system and the financing mechanisms (subsidy, grants, loans, private capital, blended finance) and institutions that drive them remain focused largely on the producing staples and less on producing food rich in micronutrients and minerals. Efforts to integrate nutrition into the food systems by increasing the production of micronutrient dense crops, including fruits, vegetables (exotic and traditional), and nuts have left much more to desire. Production of fruits, vegetables, and nuts remains low, resulting in a high unaffordable price of a healthy diet. In the US for example, a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, could be at least US$ 1.50 more than a diet rich in calories; according to a Harvard study. In parts of Africa, a healthy diet can cost up to 69% more than the price of unhealthy food choices.; revealing that even those living above the World Bank poverty line (1.90 a day) cannot afford a healthy diet. The option to use inorganic fertilizers to increase productivity and production of fruits and vegetables and by that increase supply and reduce price could help but at a high cost to the environment and human health because inorganic fertilizer- when not used sustainably – can reduce soil organic matter and microbial diversity and cause the leaching out of carbon.

Use Seaweed to Fill the Micronutrient and Mineral- Rich Food Gap

The challenges being faced by the crop agricultural production system to produce the needed quantity of food rich in micronutrients and minerals, the current state of malnutrition (especially among women and children), the slow paste of progress in addressing malnutrition, and the adverse impact of COVID-19 on the already slow paste, demand that we prioritize other complementary sources of micronutrient and mineral-rich food. It is at this point we call for the insertion and scaling up of Seaweed into the food system.  Seaweeds are a good source of B1, B2 B12, C, fat-soluble vitamins, and a good source of iodine, protein, and dietary fiber. The protein concentration in Seaweed- especially red seaweed- can be up to 47% and the vitamins in seaweed can provide health benefits including decreasing blood pressure, preventing cardiovascular diseases, or reducing the risk of cancer. Japanese and other East Asians frequently eat Seaweeds- something that is likely contributing to their relatively longer lifespan since Seaweed can prevent lifestyle-related diseases. Iodine- which plays a very critical role in the physical growth and cognitive development of young children is found in eggs, fish, and dairy, but the best source of Iodine is seaweed. For obesity, we have seen evidence of how seaweed- especially brown seaweed- could inhibit weight gain, prevent obesity, and save people battling obesity from the high costs and hazardous side effects of anti-obesity drugs. Nutrition deficiencies can also be addressed through the income pathway- where households use their income to purchase nutritious food. On this pathway, seaweeds also play a meaningful role. The rapid growth rate and short farming cycles of Seaweed enable farmers to generate income fast enough to meet food and households need once markets are functional. In some communities seaweed farming has been the major income generating activity- next to artisanal farming only.

Seaweed is not a “civil bullet” for addressing nutrition deficiencies. However, Seaweed can complement and do so like no other. Unlike the crop agriculture production system that provides food, vitamins, and mineral but at a high cost to the environment, seaweed can provide important vitamins, and minerals while protecting the environment. For example, Seaweed can reduce ocean acidification and when used in animal feed, reduce methane emission from cattle by 82%.

As we go to the 2021 Global Food Summit, scheduled to begin in September, the stakeholders in the global food community must make and uphold bold and timebound financial and other commitments to supporting establishment like the Safe Seaweed Coalition that are leading the seaweed revolution. The resources would be used to address issues on both the supply and demand side of the seesawed subsector. On the supply side, resources could be sued to Improve farming techniques to increase production but importantly reduce any potential adverse effect of farmers (especially women) staying longer time farming in water. On the demand side, the resources could be used to conduct an extensive country-specific randomized controlled trial to build and lift evidence on the bioavailability of nutrients in specific species of seaweed, their degree of efficacy in addressing nutrition deficiencies, and the most appropriate culinary methods that can ensure the bioavailability. Resources could also be used to build regulatory systems to address food safety concerns and increase consumers’ confidence in consuming seaweed.

Ambulah Mamey is Agricultural Development Practitioner. He is skilled in the use data to diagnose agricultural development challenges, design and implement context-specific, evidence and outcome-based agricultural development programs and to report impact. He has led the implementation of multimillion dollars USAID funded food security and FAO’s agriculture for nutrition programs in parts of Haiti, Nicaragua, and Africa, respectively.