Social and Economic Dimensions of Carrageenan Seaweed Farming

Lucy Towers
28 March 2014, at 12:00am

This FAO document attempts to provide a balanced assessment and comparison of the social and economic performance of carrageenan seaweed farming in different countries. Various issues related to seaweedcarrageenan value chains are highlighted. The technical and economic performance of a number of carrageenan seaweed farming cases are systematically evaluated and compared. The positive and negative social impacts of carrageenan seaweed farming are discussed.

Carrageenan is a gelling agent extracted from red seaweeds. It can be used as an emulsifier, a binder, or for suspension and stabilization in a remarkably wide range of products in the food processing, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Demand for carrageenan has risen accordingly with demand for processed foods since research undertaken during the Second World War demonstrated that it could substitute for agar, the most popular colloid for food processing at the time. For almost three decades, production of carrageenan was restricted by availability of natural stocks of Chondrus crispus (also known as Irish moss) from Canada, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and France and Gigartina from South America and Southern Europe.

By the late 1960s, dwindling availability of wild seaweed stocks led commercial carrageenan producers to scout the world’s seas in order to diversify seaweed supplies; at the same time, resources were invested in seaweed ecology research as the possibility of cultivation offered a solution to the instability of raw material supply. Chondrus crispus was successfully cultured in tanks but these techniques soon proved to be economically unfeasible. The scouting efforts finally found success in the south of the Philippines, where native Eucheuma seaweed was found to produce high-quality carrageenan and ecological conditions made cultivation possible. The first seaweed farm was established jointly in 1969 by Marine Colloids Inc. and University of Hawaii Professor Maxwell Doty in the province of Tawi-Tawi in the south of the Philippines.

Its plentiful beds of Chondrus crispus had allowed Canada to emerge as the world’s largest supplier of carrageenan seaweed between 1948 and 1974. However, production of Eucheuma seaweeds spread rapidly in the Philippines, which soon displaced Canada as the world’s top supplier. The lower cost of labour in the Philippines relative to Canada also incentivized companies to shift their buying to the Asian nation. Although the same corporations that controlled the Canadian market tried to control production in the Philippines through plantation-style seaweed farms, they soon realized that they could not compete with small, family-run farms. The reasons were twofold: (i) the labour for seaweed cultivation must be highly flexible to work on the cyclical time scales of tides and the moon, making it difficult to pay workers stable wages; and (ii) seaweed farming has low capital and technological requirements for entry.

The success of seaweed aquaculture in the Philippines was rapidly replicated in Indonesia. Farm production came to be dominated by two species: Kappaphycus alvarezii (commonly known as cottonii) and Eucheuma denticulatum (known as spinosum). Natural collection of Sarcothalia and Gigartina species from Chile and Mexico and Chondrus crispus from Canada and France accounts for the rest. Outside the Philippines and Indonesia, cultivation of the warm water species K. alvarezii and E. denticulatum have been attempted in a number of tropical countries around the world.

However, significant production for export markets has been achieved only in Malaysia and the United Republic of Tanzania. The Philippines remained as the world’s top producer of K. alvarezii until the late 2000s, when it was surpassed by Indonesia.

The available evidence indicates that the socio-economic impacts of carrageenan seaweed farming on coastal communities have been overwhelmingly positive. Because the production model favours small-scale, family operations over corporate, plantationstyle farms, seaweed farming generates substantial employment relative to other forms of aquaculture. In addition, seaweed farming is often undertaken in remote areas where coastal communities face a reduced number of economic alternatives. Many of these communities have traditionally been reliant on coastal fisheries and are currently being affected by overexploitation of these resources. In these cases, the impact of seaweed farming goes beyond its economic benefits to communities as it reduces the incentives for overfishing. The literature contains much anecdotal evidence documenting how the economic fortunes of many villages have been transformed by seaweed farming. Many of these communities routinely lived at or below the poverty level prior to engaging in seaweed farming; with the income earned from the sale of seaweeds, many farmers have experienced substantial improvements in their standards of living as they have been able to send their children to school, introduce improvements to their dwellings, enhance their diets, increase their purchasing power of material goods, etc. In particular, seaweed farming has had a remarkably positive effect on the socio-economic status of female farmers as it allows them to engage in an income-earning activity that can be undertaken without neglecting traditional household chores.

However, carrageenan seaweed farming is not without its own set of challenges. Environmentally, farmers face a myriad of challenges such as the incidence of tropical storms and predation by herbivorous fish. In particular, a disease condition named “iceice” represents a formidable threat.

Devastating “ice-ice” outbreaks have been reported in almost all the major carrageenan seaweed farming countries. Because rampant “iceice” outbreaks prevented them from farming the more lucrative K. alvarezii, many seaweed farmers in Zanzibar (the United Republic of Tanzania) chose to abandon seaweed farming altogether. Economically, a major challenge is represented by the uncertain and volatile market conditions. This was particularly evident during the “seaweed price bubble” of 2008, when farm prices reached exorbitant levels and then collapsed in the course of a few months. Given the sudden price increase, many farmers rushed to harvest immature or low-quality seaweed, flooding the market and precipitating the subsequent price crash. Socially, the recent literature has drawn attention to some negative social impacts of carrageenan seaweed farming, such as low incomes for farmers in some places and occupational health hazards.

Given this background, the goal of this document is to conduct a comprehensive and balanced assessment of the socio-economic impacts of carrageenan seaweed farming in different locations. The assessment includes six country case studies that cover countries with established commercial production (Indonesia, the Philippines, and the United Republic of Tanzania) and with nascent or potential aquaculture sectors (India, Solomon Islands and Mexico). Each country study provides a review of carrageenan seaweed farming development and attempts to quantify the impacts of the sector on the socio-economic status of farmers. The assessment also includes a global synthesis intended to compare carrageenan seaweed farming experiences in different countries and provide a global overview. The synthesis highlights various knowledge and information gaps that need to be filled in order to deepen and broaden understanding of the industry and it also suggests several areas for further study. This study unveils the clear potential of carrageenan seaweed farming in raising the socio-economic status of coastal communities in developing countries.

Nevertheless, it is also evident that this potential needs to be evaluated in the context of local conditions and from a global and dynamic perspective. Why has carrageenan seaweed farming developed into a lucrative commercial business in some places (e.g. Indonesia and the Philippines), whereas in other places (e.g. Eastern Africa and Pacific islands) it has largely remained a diversified livelihood source for marginalized coastal villagers who have no access to alternative, higher-return economic activities? Further study is needed to deepen understanding of this fundamental question, but it is expected that the information, knowledge and insights provided by this report should help governments and other interested parties design policies most suitable to their countries.

Although the six country case studies and the global synthesis have been prepared under similar frameworks and included as different chapters in this document, they are self-contained papers by themselves. The global synthesis is placed as the first chapter to provide readers with a global overview. The ensuing country studies provide more detailed and specific information on the experiences of individual countries. The sequence of the six studies is determined, in descending order, by the countries’ carrageenan seaweed farming production in 2010 according to FAO statistics.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

March 2014