Seaweeds are an increasingly important part of the Chilean fisheries sector and provide a livelihood for thousands of people. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Seaweeds are an increasingly important part of the Chilean fisheries sector and provide a livelihood for thousands of people. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Orlando Milesi reports for IPS News that nutrient-rich seaweed, a regular part of the diet of several South American indigenous peoples, is emerging as a new pillar of food security in Latin America and is providing a livelihood for thousands of people in the region’s coastal areas.

Seaweeds have been used as human food ever since ancient times, especially in China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. When people from these countries migrated to other regions of the world they took their food habits with them.  This is why dishes based on fresh, dried and salted algae can be found in nearly every corner of the earth.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), marine aquaculture products, particularly algae and molluscs, contribute to food security and the alleviation of poverty, since most producers work in small- or medium-sized fishing businesses. In Latin America, hunger affects 34 million people out of the total regional population of 625 million, according to FAO’s statistics. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela have explored seaweed production for food.

In Chile, “studies carried out in Monte Verde (in the Los Lagos region, 800 km south of Santiago) showed that in one of the earliest human settlements in the Americas, people ate seaweed as part of their diet,” said Erasmo Macaya, principal researcher at the Algal Research Laboratory at Chile’s prestigious University of Concepción. Marine algae “were a food source for the Lafkenche indigenous people, who used them (and still do) as part of their diet, particularly kelp (Durvillaea antarctica), known as ‘kollof,’ and ‘luche’ (Pryopia and Porphyra species),” he told IPS.

Axel Manríquez, head chef at the Plaza San Francisco hotel in Santiago, told IPS that there is currently a “re-enchantment with algae, primarily because vegans eat so much of them. Because of intermarriage with Chinese people and the influence of Chinese culture, Peruvians have incorporated seaweed into their “Chifa” cuisine (based on Cantonese culinary traditions). In Chile, Chinese influence is limited to the north of the country, and so all our seaweed is exported to Asia, where it is in great demand as a foodstuff,” he said.

Over 700 species of marine macroalgae have been described in Chile, yet only 20 of these species are utilized commercially. “Unfortunately there have been very few studies on biodiversity and taxonomy, which are also very poorly funded since they do not generate immediately visible products, and many observers consider they do not have a ‘direct’ application,” said Dr. Macaya, who believes the real number of species is probably “two- or three-fold higher” than those already classified.

Over the past few decades demand has grown faster than the capacity to supply needs from natural (wild) seaweed stocks. “Seaweeds must definitely be cultivated because we cannot simply collect the wild algae populations. Experience shows that over-exploitation is a widespread problem — not only for seaweed — for which we must find sustainable solutions,” said Dr. Macaya.

To address this problem, the Chilean government enacted a law to promote cultivation and repopulation of natural seaweed beds (“Ley de bonificación para el repoblamiento y cultivo de algas”). This will provide compensation to small seaweed collectors (artisanal fishers and micro-businesses) in order to increase algal cultivation and harvesting and, in the process, to redeploy large numbers of workers.

The country’s current seaweed sector directly employs 6,456 artisanal fishers and coastal shellfish gatherers, as well as 13,105 artisanal divers. Including indirect jobs, the number of artisanal fishers and small businesses involved is over 30,000.

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Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez. Translated by Valerie Dee.