A Life Cycle Analysis of seaweed for food: a unique insight into the eco-footprint


Globally, the food sector is the largest industrial sector and consumes most of the world’s energy. A projected population growth and increase in calorie intake per capita will result in the expansion of our agricultural systems and so will have increasingly negative effects on our global environments Thus, “improving food production and consumption systems is at the heart of every discourse on sustainable development from both environmental and socio-economic perspectives” (Notarnicola et al., 2017, p.  399). This research shows that the negative effects of conventional agriculture can for the greater part be mitigated by the production of a seaweed ingredient in comparison to a conventional staple food ingredient. Water, resource and energy use and the global warming potential of a seaweed ingredient are lower with a factor of ± 2.9 up to 13.7, in comparison to the production of wheat flower.

First, to paint a picture of the Dutch seaweed market and to guide the quantitative analysis, a set of relevant stakeholders were interviewed. Interviews illustrate that important characteristics of the Dutch seaweed sector include the high use of the cultivation as a production method by the stakeholders, potentially highlighting the shift to a market more dependent on the supply from a cultivated source. Most commonly, species, such as Saccharina latissima, Undaria pinnatifida and Ulva lactuca are used food applications. Among the interviewed stakeholders, the majority of this seaweed is traded in dried form, which is seen as a costly step by stakeholders. This challenge is confirmed through the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which shows that the drying of the seaweed contributes 25% of the released CO2 emissions of a seaweed food ingredient. Lastly, the production or harvesting of high-quality seaweed offers a competitive advantage for the local seaweed value chains in the Netherlands and Europe. This high quality is confirmed by the stakeholders as an important driver for the development of the sector.

By evaluating a set of seaweed value chains, the results of the LCA show that segments, such as the processing of seaweed and the development of the farming module, contribute most to the environmental footprint of a seaweed ingredient. Results illustrate that the production of the cultivation rope and the anchor alone contribute 25% of the released CO2 emissions of a seaweed food ingredient. Additionally, the processing of the seaweed contributes 25% and 65% of the CO2 emission and water use, respectively. To improve the environmental sustainability of a seaweed ingredient, opportunities for the optimization of these segments should be explored.

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