Developing Value Chains from the Sargassum Crisis

Sargassum Crisis

Sargassum arriving at the beaches of Florida.

by Elena Martinez Martinez

Editor’s note: the following is excerpted from an article entitled “Developing Value Chains from the Sargassum Crisis: An Emerging Market Worthy of Serious Investment,” written by Elena Martinez Martinez, that appeared in recently. We urge readers interested in the developing seaweed industry to read the full article.

Sargassum collection could create thousands of jobs by harvesting this macroalgae from the sea while it is fresh and sand-free. Additionally, sargassum management could generate many other formal jobs such as collection equipment manufacturing and repair, ground transportation, and raw-material management.

Furthermore, sargassum processing and transformation are already promoting research, developing new commercial products, and establishing industrial treatment and handling plants. Finally, the commercialization will include both selling sargassum as a raw material and products derived from it.

These opportunities present (affected) economies with the added benefits of reducing the importance of imports, enabling the regions to become global exporters, and propelling socioeconomic development. The fields of application of this macroalgae as a raw material are extremely wide.

Several studies have shown that sargassum can be transformed into livestock feed, cosmetic products, a synthetic fertilizer substitute, biofuel and biogas, a synthetic plastic replacement, a construction material, and fabrics.

Sargassum has the potential for many uses for animals and humans alike. Due to the components present in this alga, such as vitamins, fatty acids, and minerals—sargassum could be an important supplement in animal feed to increase the productivity and efficiency of dairy cattle. Other algae studies have also shown that supplementation in feed can reduce methane emissions from cows or cholesterol in eggs because the compounds increase metabolism efficiency, resulting in less residue generation.

It is also good for humans. Once again, its high concentration of various compounds and secondary metabolites makes it a raw material of high nutritional value, with properties that support bone regeneration, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-angiogenic, and anti-cancer processes. It is also ideal for the creation of cosmetic compounds.

Another potential application is as a biostimulant. As mentioned earlier, agricultural fertilizers are one of the major sources of toxic ocean discharges. Every year, farmers dump more than 40 million tons of fertilizer into the ocean. Eliminating the use of fertilizers is extremely complex, but there is the possibility of finding sustainable and environmentally safe alternatives.

The amino acids, polysaccharides, phytohormones, and phenols found in sargassum extracts have been shown to have eliciting and biostimulant properties, making crops more resilient to unfavorable external factors (lack of water, high temperatures, deserted substrates, etc.), in addition to increasing crop productivity.

Due to the large sargassum quantities that arrive and are available, sargassum management organizations can supply raw material for more than one application, and many of the industrial processes for transforming sargassum into these commercial products are compatible. As they demand different compounds of interest, the same amount of sargassum can cover multiple sustainable exploitation options.

In the field of biofuels, research has proven that sargassum can be used to create biogas, biofuel, and biodiesel – which could imply a breakthrough in the energy industry. In the field of construction, sargassum has already been used as a test for the creation of bricks and blocks, and in the textile world, there is the possibility of making shoes and fabrics for clothing.

The collection and transformation of sargassum also offers the potential to generate carbon credits. Although sargassum is a CO₂ sink, when it makes landfall it starts decomposing and rotting, releasing CO₂, methane, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If the sargassum is properly collected at sea and used as raw material, it never gets the chance to decompose, thus avoiding such emissions.

Research suggests that each ton of dry sargassum collected prevents the emission of 0.15 to 0.45 tons of CO₂. Therefore, it offers many carbon sequestration opportunities, which involve promising methods to scale at the gigaton level to accelerate climate action and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The climatic and environmental changes that the planet is undergoing are enormous. And the oceans, the source of life on Earth, are particularly endangered. Deteriorating oceans, in turn, harm the most vulnerable communities, putting their stability in danger. Thus, the sargassum crisis has the potential to become a negative-feedback loop.

However, if we change our perspective and apply the principles of blue biotechnology and circular bioeconomy to support research and development, countries can transform the sargassum challenge into solutions that generate value chains from the environment and for all socioeconomic groups.

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