Australia's Seaweed Warrior
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An intrepid scientist is transforming the science of seaweed into a sustainable business with an all-embracing vision…
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Australia's Seaweed Warrior

by Natalie Parletta See Profile
Shoalhaven, NSW, Australia
4th Apr 2019
Australia's Seaweed Warrior

It was innovation and determination that enabled Swedish-born Pia Winberg to go from being a phycologist (expert in the science of algae) to entrepreneur, bringing to life the ecological potential of seaweed.

Winberg, after uncovering the complex reproductive and nutritional qualities of an Australian seaweed species at the Shoalhaven Marine and Freshwater Centre, University of Wollongong, grew frustrated that the science was not being translated.

“It’s easy to stand there as an academic saying, ‘the world should do this’, and it’s quite another thing to get out there and actually do it,” she says.

Winberg manifested her vision by founding one of the world’s first land-based seaweed farms at Shoalhaven, a coastal area south of Sydney. Her partnerships now extend from local government and businesses to create not just products, but also job opportunities in a region suffering from high unemployment and depleted fish stocks.

Globally, seaweed’s growing popularity as an alternative and viable source of food, fodder, fuel and funds is being driven by mass population growth, overfishing and unsustainable aquaculture practices. However, despite Australia’s expansive coastline spanning more than 25,760 km, rendering it the seventh longest in the world, seaweed has not been grown on it. Until now.

Pictured: Various seaweed varieties.
Pictured: Various seaweed varieties.

For Winberg, her vision started 20 years ago when she was working with Swedish foreign aid for her Masters research exploring the impact of unsustainable aquaculture practices adopted by developing countries.

“They were doing it in a very unsustainable way… People just went and dug up a piece of coastline. They didn’t ask anybody, they didn’t even necessarily own the bit of land. They just went in there digging, and building an aquaculture facility”, she says.

Winberg recalls them cutting down mangroves and pouring toxic waste nutrients into local lagoons.

“Only when the polluted water was pumped back to local farms, did they understand,” she says, recalling that the prawns got sick and people died from the contaminated water.

Her quest to find sustainable aquaculture systems led her to a Sri Lankan farm that used a permaculture approach. On this farm she investigated the water chemistry to determine where the nutrients were going and which elements of the process were most efficient.

She discovered the sea water, rather than being pumped back into local estuaries, was recirculated through a series of pools. Some pools had fish that took up the prawns’ waste and provided food for the local community. Others had mussels that took out finer particles, and then the seaweed removed dissolved nutrients while replenishing the water’s oxygen levels.

It was here, Winberg says, “seaweed really stuck out to me as a big solution in aquaculture” — and that’s where her love affair started…

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Seaweed is multicellular algae. Nori and its sister plants (including carrageen; ‘Irish moss’), belong to the class of red seaweeds, of which production skyrocketed after the year 2000 to more than 12 million tons. The cultivation of brown pigmented seaweed (kelp, wakame) is not far behind, generating around 8 million tons per year. However, green seaweed, the third group, has been overlooked to date – a focus of Winberg’s research.

Winberg says Australia has as many exclusive species of seaweed in the ocean as on land.

“We’ve got kangaroos, koalas and gum trees, and they’re unique to Australia. In the ocean our seaweeds are endemic as well. They’re like our own gumtrees of the ocean.”

Seaweed’s sustainability value lies largely in its ability to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the biosphere faster than any land crops. For comparison, a hectare of wheat yields about five tons of dry weight product. Winberg’s seaweed – once upscaled – could grow around 100 tons on the same hectare, and it doesn’t need fresh water. Instead, it relies on sea water which Australia has in abundance.

Winberg established her inaugural seaweed farm in partnership with one of Australia’s largest wheat refineries, Shoalhaven Starches.

In exquisite ecological harmony, the seaweed captures CO2 released by ethanol produced from the wheat’s natural waste. The wheat also produces eight megalitres of waste water per day, of which six megalitres is recovered, leaving a concentrated salty nutrient also captured by the seaweed. This process is effectively “closing the loop on waste products from wheat,” Winberg says. The seaweed’s only waste products are water and oxygen.

Shoalhaven’s wheat refinery releases 350 tons of ethanol daily. Winberg’s seaweed production has a long way to scale up before it will capture all of it; another “massive challenge, going from a concept on a lab bench to actually doing it at scale and keeping molecules and quality consistent”, she says.

Pictured: Harvested Seaweed.
Pictured: Harvested Seaweed.

After working with beakers and harvesting in a colander, she needs to drain 300 kg of seaweed from 50,000 litres of seawater and filter, process and dry it before it rots. To do that, “you need to make or find machines that can do it for you because no one has done it before.”

Why a land-based farm?

“Fishing for seaweed from the ocean would be a bit like fishing for fish,” Winberg explains. Tasmania, for instance, has harvested seaweed from the ocean but they’ve reached their peak – just as Australia has reached its fishing peak.

Pumping seawater onto coastal land and adding nutrients composted from organic food-waste creates a quality-controlled, nutrient-rich seawater in harmony with local ecosystems.

On top of this, Winberg’s green seaweed is rich in nutrients. It contains trace elements including iron, magnesium, selenium, and less recognised yet equally important minerals like boron. One unique property is its low iodine levels, because iodine can be toxic in high doses – a limiting factor for seaweeds like kelp. This means more of the seaweed can be used, maximising its nutritional benefits.

After adding sun, CO2, water, nutrients and seawater to grow the seaweed, Winberg’s farm processes it to produce dry weight products. Winberg sprinkles it on her food, but realises the flavour is not for everyone.

Recognising an opportunity to enrich nutritionally depleted foods in the market, Winberg created Venus Shell Systems, a company that collaborates with local industry to incorporate the seaweed into foods like pasta, protein bars and ‘phukka’ (seaweed-enriched dukkha).

As well as drying the whole seaweed, Winberg extracts constituents like protein. Her farm provides consistent nutritional conditions that stabilise the seaweed’s protein at 40 percent. When extracted, it yields a complete protein powder with a full amino acid profile. The seaweed also contains vitamin B12, an essential nutrient otherwise only available in animal products, and it is rich in phytonutrients which deliver antioxidant and other benefits.

Pictured: Seaweed Pasta.
Pictured: Seaweed Pasta.

Perhaps the seaweed’s most remarkable aspect is its diverse dietary fibres. Winberg describes it as, “the king of dietary fibre – one of the chronic deficiencies in the Western diet”.

“We probably only get fifty percent, if that, of the dietary fibre needed to feed our diverse and complex gut flora. So we could actually lock the seaweed into a really big food gap, and that’s a big focus of our research.”

Learn more about Venus Shell Systems.

Venus Shell Systems
Natalie Parletta

About Natalie Parletta

Qualified in nutrition and psychology, she spent ten years researching links between them. Now at large, she is passionate about exploring what it means to be human and how we can do better, covering topics spanning science, health, people, animals and nature.

More from Natalie Parletta

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Our Environment
Shoalhaven, NSW, Australia
4th April 2019

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