Seaweed grows abundantly along many a coastline. But who would have thought you could cultivate a thriving business from foraging for this natural resource? The Cornish Seaweed Company is showing that it can be done – in a way that’s good for people and planet.
Located along England’s rugged southwestern tip, Cornwall is known for its scenic seaside landscape. And like so many, it’s a love of the ocean that brought Tim van Berkel to the region.
Tim has an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity, and together with renewable energy engineer Caro Warwick-Evans, was dismayed to see so much seaweed going unused along the shore, especially when they found out about its amazing nutritional properties – it’s packed with essential vitamins and minerals, such as iodine, iron and calcium. It was the start of a new business idea.
“To be able to work in the sea and with the sea in a sustainable manner – it ticked all the boxes”
Tim van Berkel
The pair decided to forage the wild algae to sell as a delicious food. “To be able to work in the sea and with the sea in a sustainable manner at the same time promoting an underused healthy and sustainable resource – it ticked all the boxes of anything that I would want to work with or for,” Tim says.
They co-founded the Cornish Seaweed Company in 2012. It was the first of its kind in the country, so they worked with government advisory body Natural England to draw up a set of standards for sustainable wild seaweed harvesting. “Seaweed is very resilient, but at the same time it’s a fragile ecosystem, so you don’t want to harvest mechanically. You want to make sure you only cut plants above their growth area, and don’t cut them off the rocks,” Tim explains.
They have been granted a licence to harvest different sections in rotation, allowing for regrowth, and today supply restaurants and shops across the country with their dried sea greens. People can also order the products online. Demand has grown so high that they have started farming their own seaweed on the side.
The company is a small, local operation, employing 10 people in total and four part-time foragers. Tim is one of them. Weather permitting, they go out in all seasons, around spring tides when the water is low enough to expose the seaweed. They usually have a window of 10 to 18 days per month when they can go out and pick it by hand. Nature decides when.
“You need to feel nature, touch it, immerse yourself in it. That’s when you really get an understanding of what it is and the urgency of the crisis we’re in”
Tim van Berkel
It’s hard work. After harvesting, they have to carry it in backpacks over slippery rocks up a very steep 110-metre cliff to be cleaned and dried. But Tim still describes it as “a privilege” that he can earn a living in this way.
Being outside daily, working alongside the waves, he feels a strong connection to the natural world around him and is acutely aware that this is something that many people don’t get the opportunity to experience. “Seeing at first hand how fragile, how beautiful, and how life-giving nature is, can be central to people’s behaviour. People hear about the biodiversity crisis or mass extinction, but it’s too abstract, it doesn’t mean anything to them. You need to feel nature, touch it, immerse yourself in it. That’s when you really get an understanding of what it is and the urgency of the crisis we’re in.” And as this Cornish company shows, if we align our lives and livelihoods with the needs of nature, it will reward us with its bounty.
Try it yourself
- Interested in foraging your own wild seaweed? Find out which sea greens are edible and how to cook with them in Tim and Caro’s Seaweed Cookbook. There’s also a recipe for a kelp-infused Martini.