Sapeti Tiitii has just finished helping her eighth village build a seaweed farm, this one on the island of Savaii.
She arrives each day with a team from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to discuss the importance of limu and the potential it holds for communities around the country. By November, 20 villages will have new limu farms.
During her meetings with villagers, she tells them of the possibilities, showing them packages of seaweed based snacks from Australia, and tells them how much they can earn: 10 to 15 tala (about $3.90 to $5.80) for three pounds of their limu. Tiitii is introducing them to a method of farming that submerges and suspends trays of seed limu between stakes off the shore.
“That’s when you see their looks: ‘Oh, it’s a lot of money if you do it properly,’” said Sapeti.
They are likewise surprised by the four to six weeks it takes to grow. “It’s a new knowledge for all of us here.”
Limu — seaweed — is not new to Samoans, who have foraged and consumed the aqueous greens for generations, but farming seaweed is a new addition to the commercial landscape.
Tiitii is working to cultivate the use of seaweed from something traditional — given as a gift or rolled out for special occasions as part of various dishes — into a potential economic asset to help Samoa lift itself from the economic slump of the pandemic.
Several aid organizations see seaweed as a promising industry in the Pacific for a multitude of uses. Fiji has already paved a course for the region through farmed seaweed, for cosmetics among other things, but for Samoa and Kiribati it is proving to be an aquatic multi-use product, helping public health, women’s empowerment and the environment.
Countries around the Pacific suffer from high incidences of non-communicable diseases and obesity, in part due to a legacy of colonial rulers and post-colonial forces influencing islanders’ diets.
The human expense of the introduction and proliferation of imported foods, alongside a comparable dearth in affordable healthy foods and entrenched consumption patterns, has left many countries in a public health quagmire. But seaweeds, densely packed with minerals and vitamins, are considered a salve.
It is a more recent entry into the West’s health-foodie nomenclature but Pacific communities have a centuries-long history of consuming limu, one that survived the influence of their food systems.
In Hawaii, limu is integral to the traditional diet. Several varieties were used and were important sources of vitamins and minerals, which was also true for Samoa, where it is rolled out as a gift or included in celebratory dishes.
According to a 1978 article by the late Hawaiian botanist Isabella A. Abbot, the preservation of limu as a traditional ingredient flew in the face of post-World War II trends, which saw fast-food chains and their burgers replacing saimin stands.
“Against this change in food availability and food habits, continued use of seaweeds in the diet is surprising,” wrote Abbott. “Those of Hawaiian, Japanese and Filipino ancestry, the principal ethnic groups historically having seaweeds in their diets, purchase enough seaweeds to keep several suppliers in business (personal observation).”
In the late 1970s, the diets of the Kiribati people were being influenced by products coming from overseas. Like many Pacific nations and territories, the previous diets of fresh fish and meat, tubers, fruit and leafy vegetables were being replaced by preserved meats, rice, fats, oils, and sugary products. According to a 2019 study, 61% of adults in Kiribati have low dietary diversity and high deficiencies in micronutrients.
Kiribati faces a “triple burden” of malnutrition, obesity and diabetes, alongside micronutrient deficiencies, stunting and wasting, according to Australian nutritionist Libby Swanepol.
Like other Pacific nations, the prevalence of cheap, unhealthy foods discourages the consumption of healthier but costlier alternatives. And while Samoa and Hawaii, among others, have maintained their cultural consumption of seaweeds, there is no enduring tradition in Kiribati.
Swanepol’s work, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, aims to boost the involvement of women in harvesting, processing and consuming seaweeds in Kiribati, as a means to encourage the population to normalize the consumption of seaweed.
“They’re one of the most food insecure countries in the world,” said Swanepol, a University of Sunshine Coast nutrition and dietetics lecturer. “People don’t have enough money to buy the food that they need to be healthy.”
The annual per capita income for Kiribati sits at $1,670, the lowest in the Pacific. To make matters worse, soil acidification and land-loss is a very real issue, leading Kiribati to buy up land in Fiji to help secure a more certain future.
The project, started in 2018, faced some challenges because the pandemic saw Kiribati’s borders close indefinitely. But it appeared Kiribati residents had received the idea of eating seaweed with enthusiasm, and local proponents had taken the lead, said Swanepol. Now it is a mainstay in aquaculture extension programs delivered by the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
Taati Eria, a principal fisheries officer with the Ministry, hopes that seaweeds will become a staple in the Kiribati diet. She is an avid forager of seagrapes, and the recipes developed by Swanepol and her team have become an intriguing new business for women in the various islands.
“We’re targeting the women, to see the importance of the nutritional value of seaweed,” said Eria. “Once they understand the nutritional value of seaweed they can become role models in promoting seaweed in their families to have it part of their diet.”
Kiribati has three main edible seaweeds: kappaphycus, caulerpa (sea grapes) and acanthophora. Though sea grapes are the easiest to use, often eaten in salads, kappaphycus had already proven its versatility. Through experimentation, kappaphycus, cooked and tossed with dried tuna, kimchi, chili and noodles had been the most popular dish thus far.
“Our staff, because we do trainings in the outer islands in fish processing and value adding, we include seaweed,” said Eria.
The programs typically included fish smoking, bottling and jerky-making, but now, seaweeds are included for making jams, salads and even ice cream. One group of women had started their own small but busy business in the outer islands, selling raspberry and vanilla ice creams using carrageenan gel extracted from seaweed.
“They make them in small buckets and sell it to the community,” said Eria. “It’s great news for us because the training was never wasted, the communities are taking the lessons that they learned.”
Kiribati once had a healthy seaweed industry, farming kappaphycus to export to Asia, where carrageenan gels would be extracted for various products. At its peak, Kiribati’s exports reached almost $1.7 million in 2000, but exports have decreased since 2018, according to Kiribati’s National Statistics Office.
Eria says the decline was due to a confluence of issues: the destruction caused by 2015 tropical cyclone Pam, increased water temperatures, disease, and an increased incentive to grow copra instead, thanks to government subsidies. The Ministry is now trying to revive the industry, seeking to reconnect with Asian markets.
There are several hurdles that need surmounting, she says, such as having key infrastructure for the export of goods, which already exists for copra but not for seaweeds. For now, the focus remains on wild harvesting and engaging women.
In Samoa, there is a pre-existing culture of harvesting seaweeds, one that was shared between Samoan and Kiribati women during an exchange program in 2018. And while the women had the knowledge of how to harvest, process and write recipes for seaweed, the commercial upscaling was not part of their vision.
Still, according to Tiitii, an exporting industry remains a long-term vision. Japan has expressed interest in Samoa’s limu, but the current focus remains on creating both demand and supply within Samoa and perhaps later adding value or exporting. That means collaboration and consideration of Fa’a Samoa customs to make certain it’s a long-term success.
Seaweeds have long been touted as a cure-all for environmental issues, from carbon sequestration to feeding plants.
When it comes to potential uses for seaweeds, apart from eating, Fiji has already started making products for agricultural use, by composting or carbonized biochar, which is another use of inedible seaweeds.
According to Eria, a swathe of smelly seaweeds washing up in Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati, has been included into farming processes.
And according to Swanepol’s analysis, tomatoes grown in compost with fish waste and seaweed were far higher in nutrients. “Seaweed’s full of nitrogen, so you’re putting that back into the soil,” said Swanepol.
There remains much to be learned about seaweeds, however, in terms of their potential for the environment, food systems, health and economies, but it has become common knowledge that it holds untold benefits for the environment from feeding plants to sequestering carbon.
“In terms of sustainability, it really does tick all those boxes of the environment and the economy and there’s just such great social benefits that can come from bringing out seaweed that it’s exciting,” said Swanepol. “And we know so little about it … there’s lots that’s going to come.”
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