Seaweed may be the superfood substitute to when rice and wheat run out

Now we know how precarious our situation, when the world is wrought asunder by war, disease, and all manner of human malfeasance.

First, Covid-19 turned our daily lives upside down, then Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to wage war, and now, we wonder what is the next hot potato to land on our plates since Donald Trump looks set to make a return to the White House.

Pestilence and global pandemic was a repeat of events a century ago – when (mis)communication was not, as now; a computer click away. Now, everyone can have their say and raise all kinds of conspiracy theories on the pros and cons of vaccinations.

But with the wheat and rice pipeline being squeezed shut at source (Ukraine is the source of your Tepung Cap Sauh apparently, and India is where your Beras Cap Masjid comes from, maybe?), no amount of KOL (key opinion leader) cajoling will tell you to grin and bear it.

Actually, one can – ‘green’ and grow it! The answer does not lie in the soil, it is in the water. Grow seaweed!

Look no further than the rather rickety labs of Universiti Malaya (UM), where eager beaver research students are studying, among other things, Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture (IMTA).

The key words are integrated aquaculture, while multi-trophic refers to the different levels the diverse species under study reside in the food chain.

In the lab, fish (in this case tilapia) swim in amongst clumps of seaweed (Glacilaria) with varying levels of input intensity while their health and growth are monitored. Poop from the fish residing in the higher trophic level are ingested as food and nutrients by the lower trophic level weed.

It is being proven that both species live and thrive in symbiosis. The seaweed is ready for harvest every 45 days, while the tilapia is ready for the table a little longer.

Out of the lab, it now requires a far-sighted aquaculture entrepreneur to sink money into digging up ponds, fill it up with brackish water, sow the seaweed, and let loose fish. Other species like prawns and shellfish are also candidates in this ‘aquatic partnership’, which requires additional research effort, though.

At the moment, only two known aquaculture entrepreneurs (one in Muar, Johor, and the other in Kota Bharu, Kelantan), have taken the first step – growing Glacilaria as a sideline to their single-purpose commercial activity of fish breeding. So far, the introduction of the tilapia has only been undertaken as part of the on-going IMTA research carried out by a lone student pursuing his Master of Philosophy in Aquaculture at UM.

What is it about seaweed cultivation that makes it such an obvious solution to our food woes?

Firstly, it grows ever so quickly, and you don’t have to alienate a whole indigenous population (see the native land rights issue being stirred by the plan to sequester land for industrial development in Batam).

There is no unnatural demand for water resources, as it is grown in the sea and there’s absolutely no need for Baygon – much less Roundup or any other family of pesticides (perhaps with carcinogenic consequences to boot) – to keep creepy crawlies at bay.

Above all, cut up the seaweed any which way in food preparation and you’ll detect protein, nutrients, fibre, vitamins, and minerals, all packed within its frilly tendrils.

Furthermore, the seaweed is easily processed and handled once harvested – it retains its nutrients when it dries out, and that means no logistical nightmares during handling, storage, and transportation.

In Kelantan, locals have been consuming seaweed (Glacilaria) in the local delicacy called kerabu sare (from the word sarang, meaning nest or hive), but with the main input now largely smuggled from our neighbour, passing through the porous Golok River.

Our local health authorities have found traces of heavy metals in the seaweed produced, and by its clandestine nature, easily available on sale with a ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ transaction at the local market in Kota Bharu.

The researchers and entrepreneurs related to the lab work done in UM are great proponents of Glacilaria, and their efforts can be found by visiting Drcweed on Facebook (main image).

So, what are you waiting for, Mr Food Security Minister – dump your rice cooker and jump in the sea!

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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