State of the Seaweed Industry 2022
You gotta start somewhere
There is a lot of excitement around the potential of the seaweed industry outside of Asia. Phyconomy was started at the end of 2020 to track this evolution.
In this first annual State of the Seaweed Industry, we shine a light on the trends and events of the past year in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. Doing so, we consciously ignore the vast majority of seaweed production in Asia and East Africa, focusing instead on the innovators in these new markets. As our dataset grows, we hope to capture the full, global extent of the industry in the coming years.
A growing awareness
In 2021, seaweeds rode a wave of positive press. Many publications wrote in glowing terms about seaweed’s potential, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to Vogue and Cosmopolitan, leading some seaweed old hands to fear for a repeat of the short-lived seaweed hype of the 1980s. In particular, feeding seaweed to cows to reduce methane emissions was a story that captured editors’ imagination.
A growing number of health-conscious, ecologically aware consumers found out about the benefits seaweeds offer. As a result, in 2021 seaweeds started to move out of the Asian aisle to capture shelf space in other parts of the supermarket.
Investors took greater interest, too, with funds focused on food systems, the ocean and the climate pulling the cart. Investment deals doubled in 2021, and the total disclosed investment amount grew by 36% to $168 million. While Europe is leading in the number of startups, it is American companies who find it easiest to attract capital.
Philanthropy has taken notice as well. Kelp forest restoration projects attract the most grants. However, seaweed aquaculture in low-income countries is gaining traction with charities as it ticks off many SDG’s at once. WWF and The Nature Conservancy are the 2 main champions of this approach.
Growth and constraints
More startups entered the field in the past 2 years than ever before, both upstream and downstream, although the midstream of the value chain is still underserved: processing and distribution is a field that is lacking innovators and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, seaweed bioplastics startups are springing up like mushrooms: we have counted more than 35 so far.
Although harvest data shows that seaweed growers in the new territories are still in their infancy, we predict several of them will grow with leaps and bounds in the coming years as the market is no longer their main constraint. Although wild harvesting reached a ceiling back in the 1960s, it is getting a second breath now with several Caribbean startups already harvesting thousands of tonnes of noxious Sargassum, and looking to scale up quickly.
Governments are happy to support the fledgling industry with grants, but regulations to encourage the growth of the seaweed industry outside its traditional stomping grounds are still lagging behind.