The Dutch are known for their skill at keeping the waves at bay. Now a group of entrepreneurs, scientists and other experts are looking to make the most of those very waves. Using seaweed to create everything from natural fertiliser to food, ocean pioneers North Sea Farmers are innovating their way to a greener future.
- By pooling their resources and knowledge, this community strives to maximise the innovative potential of seaweed in the fight against climate change.
Standing in front of a large window, Marlies Draisma points to a yellow buoy lying at the edge of the harbour. “That’s the Sputnik,” she says, “Five years ago, we dropped it in the ocean, off the coast of the island of Texel, with a couple of lines with seaweed seeds attached to it.” It was the first attempt at cultivating seaweed in the North Sea and the beginning of what is now North Sea Farmers.
“When we pulled out the lines, we lifted the first ever cultivated seaweed from the North Sea”
Before they took to the sea to pull the buoy and the lines out of the water a few months later, they had no idea if the lines had been washed away by the currents and if they would actually have a harvest. They didn’t have the means to check on the Sputnik beforehand, but they invited the Dutch press to join them on their first trip back regardless. In front of the cameras of the two national news broadcasters, they let out a sigh of relief when they saw the result. “When we pulled out the lines, we lifted the first ever cultivated seaweed from the North Sea.”
Talking about North Sea Farmers, Marlies – a 32-year-old land and water management graduate from Wageningen University – exudes a palpable energy. She and two colleagues have been involved since the start in 2014. On this chilly but sunny day she has opened her laptop on a table overlooking the sea. You can hear the seagulls outside. The small harbour of Scheveningen is right in front of her and beyond it, the North Sea extends into the distance.
“In essence, North Sea Farmers is a movement that aims to have a positive climate impact and make the world a better place using this beautiful little plant called seaweed.” The idea is to turn one quarter of the area allocated to Dutch offshore wind farms into multi-use sea farms. “Our mission is to cultivate 400 square kilometres with seaweed,” Marlies says. “In collaboration with our partners we want to create places where you harvest seaweed, wind energy and solar energy. In doing so we also create breeding grounds for fish, we add to the biodiversity and we reduce CO2 emissions.”
“Those who join North Sea Farmers become part of the solution. That is sustainability in more ways than one”
The daring stunt with the Sputnik and the press attention that followed, kickstarted the movement. Since then, more than 100 partners have joined. Some are universities and research institutions contributing and sharing their knowledge. Others are owners of wind farms or large food manufacturers and multinationals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are start-ups, NGOs and government-affiliated organisations. Many community members are high-tech processing companies aiming to develop innovative products using seaweed, such as cattle feed, detergents, fertilisers or fibres. “The members of our community – we call them the Farmers – are all curious to know more about what seaweed can be used for. We try to link partners that would otherwise not have found each other. Together we try to grow the market for it and in doing so, we help create jobs. Those who join North Sea Farmers become part of the solution. That is sustainability in more ways than one.”
So what is so great about seaweed? “Seaweed is a low-maintenance crop that grows in salt water. You don’t need any fresh water and out in the sea there is a ton of space available to grow it,” Marlies explains. “All it needs to grow are the nutrients floating around it and the light of the sun. The farmers only go out to check on the lines every now and then and wait for the right moment to harvest.”
“We want to be the frontrunner. We are prepared to try and make mistakes, so other entrepreneurs can avoid them”
North Sea Farmers doesn’t intend to become a large seaweed producer itself. Still they have a six square kilometre plot, some 12 kilometres off the coast, for testing and experiments. “Sometimes we have an idea and we want to prove that it is possible. We want to be the frontrunner. We are prepared to try and make mistakes, so other entrepreneurs can avoid them.” There is no limit to her passion when Marlies talks about the opportunities. “There is so much we can do here in the Netherlands. We have an amazing maritime sector and arguably the best agrifood sector. If you bring the two together you have all the knowhow and the quality to develop new products.”
In fact, the agrifood sector can benefit from biostimulants made from seaweed. All around the world farmers are faced with droughts and degraded soil. Up to now the common reflex is to use fertilisers to restore the soil, but they end up damaging ecosystems and polluting fresh water sources. One of the projects that North Sea Farmers is spearheading is Bio4Safe. It intends to reduce the use of water and fertilisers in Europe by using seaweed-based biostimulants. These stimulants have proven to strengthen crops and restore soil at the same time. A consortium of North Sea Farmers partners is now developing and improving the product and tapping into the European market for it, which is already believed to be worth over €800 million and growing an estimated 10% annually.
Another example of an innovative development partner is a company called Ruitenberg. Among many other products, they have developed a seaweed-based casing for vegan sausages, preserving the satisfying crunch you hear when you bite or break them.
Being a young industry, norms and standards still need to be developed for research. Together with the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture and the Wageningen Food Safety Research institute, North Sea Farmers recently started a project to create a standardised method for taking scientific samples of Dutch seaweed.
These are just a few examples of projects and partners that North Sea Farmers are involved in. Their efforts are not going unnoticed, and they are starting to make a name for themselves outside of the Netherlands. More and more European partners are finding their way to them, driven by the strength of this community. Although each partner has a different end goal, they all share a belief in the potential of seaweed. For Marlies these projects are a great source of inspiration. “We create new production chains. We invite relevant partners to join us and test specific experiments. Everyone gathers round to see the results unfold. When it’s a success, that’s great for all of us!”
Not all the partners in the network are ones you would immediately associate with sustainability or climate action – the most glaring example being Shell. “They own large wind farms so for us they are important as a partner. I think it is interesting to be able to include these companies in our community. Of course they are best known for producing fossil fuels, but they are also involved in wind energy. We need to be careful that they don’t use this partnership for greenwashing, but I think their membership can also stimulate an innovative way of thinking for them.”
“We are a group of young, very hard working and super motivated people who created the time and space for themselves to let this story develop”
The key to the success of North Sea Farmers, according to Marlies, lies in the freedom she and her colleagues have been given to develop it. “We are a group of young, very hard-working and super-motivated people who created the time and space for themselves to let this story develop. This is all new. We are beginning to create revenue streams from membership fees, project finance and donations. But we even need to develop new financing instruments that fit the needs of this sector. One of our members is specialised in financial advice to the renewable energy sector, so we are working with them to get there.”
Marlies Draisma and her team have no lack of ambition. According to their calculations, seaweed farming in the Netherlands could grow to become a €1 billion sector, providing 3,200 jobs in the blue economy, a 30% reduction of water use in agriculture, as well as saving 1.4 million tonnes of CO2, through the use of seaweed as a replacement for traditional sources of protein. “Ten years from now, I think we will be well on our way,” she says. “We are currently working on a commercial seaweed farm with a consortium of around six companies, to grow seaweed that is locally processed into valuable products and ingredients for plants, animals and humans.” She is eager to get in touch with new and existing companies to process seaweed and with retailers that could be added to the chain. “Don’t hesitate to call me!”