The Chilean seaweed industry is bolstering economies of rural communities, providing food security, and inspiring chefs across the country. In a region (Latin America) where 34 million people are food insecure and 47 percent of the population is living in rural areas, low-input, wild seaweed cultivation makes for an accessible, relatively lucrative industry for some-odd 30,000 Chileans.
However, the rapid influx in cultivation is inching many countries closer to dangerously low seaweed populations. A team of scientists from The Journal of Applied Psychology wrote, “It is possible that overexploitation of natural seaweed resources could lead to significant ecological, economic, and social consequences at local, regional, and even global scales.” Thus, innovative, regional models of sustainability are more important than ever for the seaweed industry.
Of the country’s 750 species of seaweed, Chilean cuisine has traditionally featured cochayuyo, used in stews and as a meat substitute. Seaweed has long been a culinary feature, popular for its savory umami flavor, and its high concentration of amino acid monosodium glutamate (MSG). Additionally, seaweed’s use as a global commodity ranges from fiber, fertilizer and biofuel to Carrageenan, a polysaccharide found in red seaweeds and used throughout the food industry. Chile produces an equal 50-50 ratio of brown and red seaweed (contains Carrageenan). Recently, chefs across the country’s coastal regions are highlighting seaweed-based dishes in their restaurants, gaining international attention for illuminating indigenous marine plants. Specifically, Chile's top-ranked restauraunt, Borago, is working to showcase not just seaweed, but a wide range of marine plants native to Chile's mediterranean coastline.
In addition to providing drastic improvements to rural economies, the seaweed industry is becoming a huge boost for female livelihoods, as around 90 percent of seaweed farmers are women. At a time when over 50 percent of the overall, global farming population is female, yet a much smaller fraction of arable land is owned by women, it’s increasingly important to encourage more equitable agricultural ownership. The seaweed market is an ideal one, as it doesn’t deal with land renting, landlords or high-cost inputs. Additionally, whereas many crops stay constantly susceptible to storms, monsoons or fire, ocean farming remains stable when faced with natural or environmental disasters. Because of the many incentives encouraging Chileans to enter the seaweed industry, populations are running thinner by the month. Consequently, the most pressing problem is: how can Chile effectively utilize ocean spaces to sustain seaweed populations and also harvest at an economical rate. A substantial collaboration of anthropological and scientific research is needed to prevent a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ type play-out. As the The Journal of Applied Psychology writes, “The seascapes are increasingly managed for multiple functions and services in addition to provision of food, and this requires the integration of ecological and socio-economic research, policy innovation, and public education.”
So what does the future of seaweed cultivation look like for Chile? Realistically, the future of seaweed will look more like traditional farm scapes than rugged, wild ocean cultivation. Ocean space will likely become bought, sold and traded like land, property will become carved out, outlined, and farmers will manage their seaweed plots with calculated inputs to maximize yield. Though, with the resurgence of agroecology as a utilized agricultural process, it’s possible that it can play a pivotal role in ocean farming as well. This will ensure that seaweed and other marine plant cultivation harnesses an appropriate balance of eco-smart agriculture and economically-productive farming for men and women.