Responsibly Sourced Seaweed Is Better for You—and the Planet

Responsibly Sourced Seaweed Is Better for You—and the Planet


Responsibly Sourced Seaweed Is Better
for You—and the Planet

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Andrea Arria-Devoe, a longtime editor at Daily Candy, is the executive producer of Straws, a documentary about how ditching plastic straws can make a massive difference to the environment. In her column for goop, Arria-Devoe shares her extensive knowledge about the best countertop composter, how to shop bulk, and other hacks for living the chicest, greenest life possible.

We go to great lengths to make sure our salmon is sustainably sourced. Or that our avocado is organic. But how often do we consider where our seaweed comes from? Maybe not often enough. So when organic farmer Severine von Tscharner Fleming wanted to tell us about responsible seaweed production, we knew we had to listen.

For the past fifteen years, von Tscharner Fleming has worked in sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, and in 2009, she moved from the Hudson Valley to Maine and opened Smithereen Farm, a certified organic farm where she wild harvests seaweed and herbs. She is the director of the Greenhorns, a sustainable agricultural movement dedicated to supporting and recruiting young farmers.

Von Tscharner Fleming is sort of an agrarian savant. If you have a question about something that grows out of the ground or under the sea, she’ll likely have your answer. “How do we bring the human body back in touch with the earth?” says von Tscharner Fleming. Well, one way “is with the oyster you taste. Once people get in tune with how food makes them feel, they can see the big picture of how the land is affected by consumption habits.”

Which bring us back to seaweed. The majority of the seaweed we eat comes from global supply chains that source it from potentially contaminated Asian waters. (Hijiki seaweed has high arsenic levels and there have been concerns over the radiation levels of seaweed from Fukushima in Japan.) Knowing where your nori sheets come from is as essential as buying fruit that isn’t sprayed with pesticides. And because seaweed is a vital part of the oceans’ ecosystem, sourcing it responsibly is an important act of sustainability.

A Q&A with Severine von Tscharner Fleming

Why is it important to harvest algae and seaweed responsibly?

Everything on earth grew from the sea. We are all beneficiaries of the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that invented photosynthesis. They lazed around in shallow waters converting the energy of sunlight into the sugars and carbon bonds of life, producing oxygen and ultimately our atmosphere.

Seaweed—which is macroalgae—is a treasured part of many coastal cuisines. And it’s loved not only by humans but by the whole cold- and warm-blooded world of marine biology. By providing shelter and food for hundreds of invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp, worms, and baby fish, seaweed acts like a floating nursery. The shallow marine waters and intertidal ecosystem inhabited by algae and seaweed form the basis of life for a massive food web, nourishing migrating seabirds, dolphins, seals, and whales. The shallow, sun-penetrated edges of ocean near land are massive drivers of biological productivity, so we must harvest and enjoy the seaweed with respect for the thousands of other creatures who depend on it.

Where should we be getting our seaweed?

Choose the real deal: dried, powdered, minimally processed. Buy seaweed from small, locally owned businesses run by people who live in the communities. That often means they have a true stake in the long-term health of these coastal ecologies.

Next, consider the watersheds flowing into the ocean. Upstream polluters make for contaminated coastal ecologies, while forested uplands make for healthy seaweed—meaning it’s safer to buy seaweed from places like Maine, Northern California, and England, and Norway.

The contamination of our earth from the production of digital devices, the mining of minerals, and the chemistry used in conventional agriculture has detrimental impacts downstream. It’s wisest to choose organic food produced in places with native landscape buffers.

Avoid eating seaweed from polluted waters and global supply chains of corporate, stale, flavored, overly packaged junk.

What are the nutritional benefits of seaweed?

Edible seaweeds like nori, wakame, dulse, and alaria are of value nutritionally for their minerals and trace minerals. Our ocean contains all the dissolved minerals from billions of years of rivers coursing through geology, the lava upwelling, and rainbow-colored mountain ranges of rock degrading. The minerals stay in the sea. Seaweeds absorb these minerals into their bodies. You can see the beautiful crystalline powder on the surface of dried seaweeds. These are minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, copper, zinc, cobalt, chromium, and boron. The electrically charged minerals drive the shape and morphology of the crystals and drive thousands of metabolic and neurological pathways in the body. Each of our human cells and neurons has sodium channels and other electrolyte-powered channels and pumps to bring in new materials and flush out waste, transmit signals, and react to and provide critical functions in structural and regulatory roles in our blood and lymphatic system. So much of our health and immunity depends on minerals within our bodies.

Seaweed also contains vitamins A, C, E, and K, and chlorella may uniquely be a good source of vitamin B12. However, some seaweeds, especially brown seaweeds, like kombu kelp, can contain high amounts of iodine, so if you have a thyroid disorder such as hypo- or hyperthyroidism, you may want to check with a doctor before adding it to your diet.

What’s the best way to incorporate seaweed into our diet?

Think of seaweed as a healthy condiment with trace minerals; it can be roasted and sprinkled on rice and boiled into soups, casseroles, and grains. Liquid broths, like traditional dashi, are also good. You want to access all the polysaccharides and alginates of the seaweed.

How can algae restore the environment?

There are environmental benefits to microalgae, the microscopic algae commonly found in marine systems. (Microalgae are what we usually think of when we hear the word “algae.”) Of the different species of macroalgae, they type that can clean the water aren’t the types that you would eat. These are found in muck-holding environments, which are full of life. Because we have a lot of muck in the oceans, where microalgae are present, there’s an opportunity to regenerate the quality of our soil through restorative aquaculture by growing microalgae. Again, those algae aren’t for eating, but they can be used to restore degraded land, such as the land along highways, in parking lots, and under power lines. These parts of our landscape have tremendous potential. Algae can be grown on lines and then harvested, composted, and added to the landscapes. They can create a healthy soil biology that can support a functioning carbon cycle with native plants.

This is work that has to find its champions in cities and towns across the country. It’s a thoughtful intervention that can increase the land’s resilience. It’s a practical way to address climate change, according to research out of Cornell University.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming is the owner of Smithereen Farm and the founder of Greenhorns, a young farmers’ cultural organization. Greenhorns produces The New Farmer’s Almanac, a literary journal for working agrarians; a summer camp in Maine; guidebooks; and a series of web documentaries called OurLand.tv. Von Tscharner Fleming serves on several boards including the Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers; Farm Hack, an open source platform for farm tools; and Savanna Institute, an agroforestry network.