Though it may be a type of seaweed, kelp is anything but a weed. To marine ecosystems kelp protects coastlines from storms, to many organisms kelp serves as a vital habitat, to us humans kelp is a delicious and nutritious food, but to Bren Smith, a kelp farmer off Long Island Sound, kelp has the potential to be the next great climate solution (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b; GreenWave, n.d.). During the two-part series "Kelp Farming for the Planet" on the podcast How to Save a Planet, hosts Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg unpack the power of farming kelp (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b).
Kelp is a unique crop—it's classified as a vegetable, though it's an algae, not a plant—for a few reasons. Most obviously, kelp grows underwater, but it also requires no fertilizer to grow (up to two feet in one day!). As Smith puts it, all you need to grow kelp besides the ocean are buoys, ropes, and a boat. Additionally, because kelp grows off the ropes upside down, farmers can use the seafloor to raise other crops, like oysters (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b).
Kelp is a climate solution. All photosynthesizing organisms absorb carbon dioxide, but because kelp absorbs carbon dioxide from the ocean, not the atmosphere, it can mitigate some effects of ocean acidification. It provides off-shore protection from storms, which lessens damage to coastlines, which is especially important as climate change begins to make storms more extreme. Kelp creates habitats for all sorts of marine species, including fish, crabs, and sharks (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b). Dune Lankard, an indigenous kelp farmer in Alaska with the Nature Conservancy, has even reported seeing herring eggs in his crop. Alaskan herring populations collapsed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, meaning Lankard’s observation indicates seaweed could play a role in helping ecosystems recover from environmental disaster (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b; Nature Conservancy, n.d.).
Overall, kelp is easy to grow sustainably. However, when it comes to selling it as a product, US farmers can run into an issue: a weak domestic market (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b). Though Dr. Charlie Yarish, a marine phycology (the study of algae) professor at the University of Connecticut, estimates kelp farming to be a 6 billion dollar industry globally, that’s mostly concentrated in Asia, where it's a staple in many diets (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b, University of Connecticut, n.d.). Instead of settling on exporting kelp, Smith is trying to grow the domestic market by implementing kelp into as many products as possible. Currently, you can find kelp in bioplastics, cosmetics, animal feeds, fertilizers, compost, biofuels, and many food products, including some unexpected ones like beer, flour, and pickled goods (Blumberg & Johnson, 2021a; Blumberg & Johnson, 2021b).
The next time you’re at the grocery store, check the ingredients list of your favorite snack. Who knows? Maybe kelp, the next great climate solution, will make an appearance on the list.
Blumberg, A. & Johnson, A.E. (Hosts). (2021a, February 18). Kelp Farming, for the Planet [Audio Podcast episode]. In How to Save a Planet. Gimlet Media.
Blumberg, A. & Johnson, A.E. (Hosts). (2021b, February 25). Kelp Farming, for the Planet (Part II) [Audio Podcast episode]. In How to Save a Planet. Gimlet Media.
GreenWave. (n.d.). Our Team. https://www.greenwave.org/team
Native Conservancy. (n.d.). Our Team. https://nativeconservancy.org/ourteam/
University of Connecticut. (n.d.). Charles Yarish. https://eeb.uconn.edu/charles-yarish/