Algae could be the key to New Zealand's move towards ocean-based primary production, says Volker Kuntzsch, head of our biggest independent science organisation, the Cawthron Institute.
Alongside finfish and shellfish, algae is "the third pillar of New Zealand aquaculture", says, Kuntzsch - a former CEO of Sanford, Aotearoa’s largest seafood and aquaculture business.
Seaweed is already a significant crop throughout the world, he tells Kim Hill.
“Fifty percent of [the algae that] is being farmed is actually seaweed in different varieties, green, brown and red algae. [It is] mainly in Asian countries, mainly utilised as fertilisers and to some extent for human consumption.”
New Zealand sits amidst a vast array of marine organisms, he says.
“We probably have some 1000 different species of seaweed around our coast. And if you then look at what we actually do in terms of farming, the disappointing result is nothing.
“We do utilise it to some extent by picking it up from our beaches, drying it and producing further products out of it. But it is really minute compared to what is happening internationally.”
Scientists at Cawthron Institute's National Algae Research Centre are now working to unlock the potential that may exist among those 1,000 species.
“Right now, it's maybe three or four species that are actively investigated and are actually utilised ... but you can imagine that there must be so many more out there.”
Kuntzsch says his mission is not to uncover another mass commodity that can be extracted but to identify "ultra-high value opportunities" in algae, such as carbon sequestration [like trees, algae absorbs carbon dioxide naturally] and potential bioactive components.
One such opportunity is pharmaceuticals, he says.
“The anaesthetics industry has really not invented anything new since 1963, there are new forms, new formulations, but all based around an existing product.
“What algae offer is a natural product that basically eliminates the use of opioids. It has a long active local anaesthetic, a so-called LOLA, that we've identified can be derived from the toxin that's traditionally in fish and shellfish and leads to paralytic shellfish poisoning.”
The production of edible proteins from the sea is also a potential opportunity, he says.
“What fascinates me really is that the environmental impact of growing seaweed is so much smaller than your traditional protein. And that basically counts for anything that is derived from the ocean.”
New Zealand is known for dairy production, but the country's exclusive economic zone is 96 percent ocean, Kuntzsch says.
“Nobody really talks about the opportunity that lies within our oceans.”
Shifting some of Aotearoa's national economic effort towards aquaculture would have a significant impact on our carbon footprint, he says.
“That is from carbon sequestration and the mitigation of climate change to utilising a resource that provides itself to a much more sustainable or regenerative approach and the blue economy.”
Projects are now underway to identify how offshore farming might look, Kuntzsch says.
“How can we actually grow something offshore in a very dynamic environment? That is not that straightforward, seaweed possibly lends itself to being grown underwater on underwater structures.”
Hi-tech equipment will be an important part of the mix, he says.
“Technology [will be] involved, the artificial intelligence that you need to create to understand what is happening remotely, so you don't have to have people permanently out at sea to take care of your farms.”
Kuntzsch sees algae research as an opportunity to build a new primary industry and get it right from the outset.
“Not just look at it as here's another opportunity to create great wealth on the bottom line, but to look at what prosperity really means for society, engaging everyone, ensuring that we develop outcomes that actually lead to the opportunity to educate people to a higher degree, to ensure that we work very sustainably, that we ideally replace other activities with this form of protein production in order to ensure that the bottom line becomes increasingly sustainable.”