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Kelp boom hinges on supply chain and carbon market investments

Kelp farming is ready to scale but getting more processing plants, increasing demand and understand the carbon impact need to come first.

women picking kelp off a boat

Kelp has the potential to solve many environmental issues. Image courtesy of GreenWave.

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Excitement about kelp farming is sky-high (or ocean deep?). They seem like the do-it-all solution to many of today’s most pressing problems. Kelp can draw down carbon, restore the health of coastal ecosystems, nourish people and revive coastal economies. But farming kelp successfully is also pretty complicated. 

That’s where this week’s good news comes in. On Monday, the regenerative ocean farming non-profit GreenWave launched a virtual ocean farming hub. It’s the most comprehensive resource to date — providing a free training program for ocean farmers and an interactive community hub. With it, the organization is responding to the exponential rise in interest for ocean farming training resources it has experienced since its launch six years ago. 

"When we founded GreenWave, we started a small, local training program for about six to eight farmers per year," co-founder Bren Smith said. "It was very high touch and we taught them everything from growing seeds to installing equipment and selling their product. But within three years, the waitlist for our training program grew to over 8,000 people and we realized we needed a different approach."

The online ocean farming hub is the result of that strategy shift. It includes over 90 training videos covering topics such as hatchery management, site evaluation and permit and leasing strategies. The hub also features a farm design tool, gear lists, budget calculators and more. These resources will hopefully help many of those 8,000 people get started on their own and in collaboration with fellow aspiring ocean farmers on the platform. 

While that’s removing a significant roadblock from scaling kelp farms and unlocking its many social and environmental benefits, it won’t yet get us to the finish line. What else is needed for the kelp revolution?

Demand has grown slowly, but will it boom?

The first thing needed is demand. The kelp market is still young and demand has grown slowly and steadily. But it’s unclear whether reaching its predicted $37.8 billion by 2028 will be possible. At the moment, production is outpacing demand, according to Courtney Boyd Myers, CEO of the kelp burger startup Akua and a major seaweed buyer.

Still, she’s optimistic about market opportunities for emerging ocean farmers. An increasing number of kelp-based snacks and alternative meats are coming to market, helping to expose ocean-farming to the masses. "I also think we'll see a ton of growth in the plant-based seafood market," she said, alluding to the plant-based crab cakes Akua is planning to launch this summer. 

While food might be the most obvious market for kelp, it’s also a challenging one, requiring a change in consumer preferences.

So kelp might remain a small addition to diets. But there are many other market opportunities. In agriculture, kelp can be used as a feed additive for cows, reducing methane emissions, or used as a fertilizer. It also has potential for biofuel, bioenergy and pharmaceutical applications. With all this, I think it’s relatively safe to assume that new ocean farmers will find buyers for their products. 

Scaling processing infrastructure is key to unlocking its potential

Instead of worrying about demand, the industry should focus on supply chain infrastructure, which currently represents one of the biggest bottlenecks. Many more processing plants that can freeze, dry, flake or powder freshly harvested kelp are needed. 

The kelp cultivation cycle complicates production timelines. Harvests typically happen only once per year in the spring, after which it’s being blanched and frozen. The next step is where the challenge comes in.

GreenWave is figuring out how to create stable income streams for ocean entrepreneurs.

"To store frozen kelp is very expensive. So what's ideal for our processing partners is to sell all of the kelp from each harvest all at once," said Boyd Myers. "But of course, that's less than ideal for most early-stage brands who want to buy as their businesses grow throughout the year." 

Investment in processing infrastructure converting fresh kelp to shelf-stable dried flakes or powders will come in handy.

Not in my ocean view

Engagement with local communities presents the third challenge. "It is primarily the wealthy that own our coastlines," Seafood expert Jennifer Bushman said. "They can afford to rebuild after climate change events and the insurance that it costs to stay there." 

These coastal landowners often stand in the way of new farmers receiving permits and dock access. They don’t always realize the ecosystem benefits of seaweed farms or simply don’t like their aesthetics — another case of NIMBYism. 

GreenWave co-founder Smith noted that with education and the accelerating climate crisis, local resistance is slowly eroding. "Climate change is shifting people’s priorities from one of aesthetic to making sure we don’t burn and drown."

Kelp and carbon, what’s the deal? 

This brings us to the last piece of the puzzle — carbon sequestration. Aside from getting more farms in the water, Smith is figuring out how to create stable income streams for ocean entrepreneurs. As the industry scales and a commodity market around kelp develops, kelp prices are expected to drop. 

Farmers hope for complementary income through carbon markets. With its climate fund, GreenWave pays farmers a $1.50 environmental premium per pound of kelp, reimbursing them for "carbon and nitrogen removal and reef restoration values." 

But others have been careful to get into the kelp carbon business, as it’s a complex system. While some carbon can get absorbed in oceans through roots, fallen leaves and plants that aren’t harvested, most of the carbon kelp sequestered while growing is released at harvest, Bushman told me. The science around how much carbon commercial farms sequester isn’t yet fully established. 

There are indirect carbon benefits — avoided meat consumption, reduced methane emissions when used as cow feed supplements or replaced fossil fuels when used as biofuels. But the measurement and attribution of those carbon benefits come with their own challenges. 

All of this shows that the kelp hype is here for a reason, but there’s a lot of work ahead to convert it into a mature, carbon-sequestering and people-nourishing market.

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