Seaweed holds huge potential to bring economic, climate and gender benefits

30 April 2024

The ocean crop can significantly improve sustainable livelihoods for small-scale farmers and harvesters and empower women in coastal communities, particularly in Asia and Africa.

A woman seaweed farmer in Indonesia
Default image copyright and description

© Shutterstock/ande Putu Hadi Wiguna | A seaweed farmer in Nusa Penida, Indonesia.

  • Seaweed can help boost livelihoods, tackle climate change and bridge the gender divide.

  • The global seaweed market tripled in the past two decades, hitting $17 billion in 2021, representing a small but rapidly expanding slice of the fisheries and marine resources sector.

  • Women are increasingly playing leading roles in the seaweed sector, running about 40% of start-ups.

Seaweed, a versatile marine macroalgae, can immensely contribute to climate action, food security and gender equality, according to a recent UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD) study entitled “An ocean of opportunities: The potential of seaweed to advance environmental and gender dimensions of SDGs."

But it’s often overshadowed by fisheries and aquaculture sectors, leading to an underestimation of its economic importance, particularly for women.

“Seaweed has superpowers. It can advance several sustainable development goals at a time – economic empowerment of women and food security while helping to tackle the triple environmental crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” said Chantal Line Carpentier, head of the trade and environment branch at UN Trade and Development.

Diverse uses

Seaweed uses span various areas, including as food in sushi, salads, soups and beverages. It’s also used in industrial sectors such as pharmaceuticals, aquatic animal feed, cosmetics, textiles, bio-packaging, and in environmental projects ranging from carbon capture to renewable energy production.

In addition, it’s used to tackle common nutritional deficiencies, including iron, vitamin A, omega-3 and iodine, but more research is needed on its nutritional composition, bioavailability and health risks.

According to the report, seaweed production is resource-efficient and its ecological footprint is low, as production doesn’t need land, fresh water or fertilizers. It also absorbs more carbon than tropical forests or mangroves.

But global regulations, standards and guidance for seaweed production and human consumption are lacking. This hinders its contribution to addressing global challenges such as hunger, plastic pollution, wastewater management and environmental pollutants.

Market and trade value soaring

UN Trade and Development data shows that the global market for seaweed more than tripled over the last two decades, from $5 billion in 2000 to $17 billion in 2021, when its global exports amounted to about $1 billion.

The global fisheries and living marine resources market was estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at $400 billion in 2020, making seaweed a small but fast-growing segment.

The soaring market holds immense promise beyond food and aquaculture sectors, showing seaweed’s potential to replace fossil fuels in industries such as textiles and plastics.

“Seaweed can increase opportunities for income diversification, new business activities and local employment, thus empowering women, youth and indigenous people,” said David Vivas Eugui, chief of UN Trade and Development’s ocean and circular economy section.

But international trade in seaweed and its byproducts is underexplored, representing only 14% of the total market value. Chile, China, Indonesia, Ireland and the Republic of Korea dominate the exports.

Economic empowerment of women

Women provide more than half of the labour producing seaweed in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Tanzania.

As in other industries, they face hurdles related to safety, sanitary and health issues. They also encounter gender-related barriers such as limited access to resources, technology and decision-making roles, which undermine their effective participation in the seaweed value chain.

But they are increasingly playing leading roles in the sector, as about 40% of seaweed start-ups are run by women, showing its potential as an economic and social enabler of gender equality.

The sector needs more reliable disaggregated data for the development of gender-informed policies.

Policy recommendations

UN Trade and Development appeals for collaborative efforts across governments, regulators, civil society and academia to harness the full potential of seaweed for a more sustainable and equitable future, including through regional centres of excellence.

It urges governments to incorporate seaweed into national development plans, with explicit gender considerations, and to promote training and ventures for women in seaweed farming and aquaculture.

Regulators should encourage the development of seaweed-based plastic substitutes, integrate seaweed into wastewater treatment facilities, review regulations, marine tenure rights and marine spatial planning to support women’s participation.

Civil society groups and women’s associations should advocate for the harmonization of seaweed standards and encourage the training and adoption of internationally recognized standards and food safety regulations.

Academia and research centres should investigate seaweed’s carbon sequestration potential, biosecurity risks, nutritional benefits (particularly for women), among other areas.