Banner Image: An infographic depicting the multiple contributions of seaweed to human nutrition and health. The DayLight/Ambulah Mamey

By Ambulah Mamey

We are for more years left to meet the 2025 global nutrition targets: 40% reduction in the number of stunted under-5 children, 50% reduction of anemia in women of reproductive age, 30% reduction in low birth weight, zero increase in child overweight, 50% increase in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding, reduce and keep child wasting below 5%, but progress remains unimpressive. There are spots of progress but in many countries, we are seeing high undernourishment, obesity, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases overlapping each other. As of 2020, stunting- which is one of the most dangerous threats to human development- was affecting 149 million children while over 500 million adults suffering from obesity. As the COVID-19 disrupts access to food, slashes income, and pushes families to consume unhealthy food, the malnutrition trend may get worst especially for people in poor and conflict-affected countries and for women and children.

The state of nutrition is worrisome because of the number of lives involved, but also because the impact of malnutrition transcends the number of people it affects. Nutrition deficiencies can overburden health systems and disrupt economic transformation. We have seen this spillover effect in Africa, where under and over-nutrition is respectively costing 3 and 16 percent of annual GDP, and treating child undernutrition is costing up to 11 percent of the continent’s already inadequate public health budget. Reversing this trend- especially reducing chronic malnutrition by just 40%- could help Africa save up to US$ 83 billion. This same cost saving can be said for other parts of the world and in both cases, Seaweed can play unique complementary roles.

Diversified Food Systems, Not Only Health Systems, Will Address Global Nutrition Deficiencies

Health systems- all by themselves- will not address the corrosive global nutrition problem, including child stunting, iodine deficiency in pregnant and lactating women, and heart disease, etc. We need to focus on diet, and this will require an urgent transformation of the food system. Such transformation demands- among other things- that the crop agricultural production system is diversified enough to produce the right quantity and quality of calorie-rich food and the right quantity and quality of micronutrients and mineral-rich food. Already, a lot of work has been done to diversify the food system but to date the system and the financing mechanisms (subsidy, grants, loans, private capital, blended finance) and institutions that drive them to remain focused largely on producing staples and less on producing food rich in micronutrients and minerals. Efforts to integrate nutrition into the food systems by increasing the production of micronutrient dense crops, including fruits, vegetables and nuts have left much more to desire. Production of fruits, vegetables, and nuts remains low, resulting in a high unaffordable price of a healthy diet. In the US for example, a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, could be at least US$ 1.50 more than a diet rich in calories; according to a Harvard study. In parts of Africa, a healthy diet can cost up to 69% more than the price of unhealthy food choices.; revealing that even those living above the World Bank poverty line (1.90 a day) cannot afford a healthy diet.

Use Seaweed to Fill the Micronutrient and Mineral- Rich Food Gap

The challenges being faced by the crop agricultural production system to produce the needed quantity of food rich in micronutrients and minerals, the current state of malnutrition, the slow paste of progress in addressing malnutrition, and the adverse impact of COVID-19 on nutrition, demand we prioritize other complementary sources of micronutrient and mineral-rich food. It is at this point we call for the insertion and scaling up of Seaweed into the food system.  Seaweeds are a good source of B1, B2 B12, C, fat-soluble vitamins, and a good source of iodine, protein, and dietary fiber. The protein concentration in Seaweed- especially red seaweed- can be up to 47% and the vitamins in seaweed can provide health benefits including decreasing blood pressure, preventing cardiovascular diseases, or reducing the risk of cancer. Japanese frequently eat Seaweeds- something that is likely contributing to their relatively longer lifespan since Seaweed can prevent lifestyle-related diseases. Seaweed is the best source of iodine– a mineral that plays a very critical role in the physical growth and cognitive development of young children. For obesity, we have seen evidence of how seaweed- especially brown seaweed- could inhibit weight gain, prevent obesity, and save people battling obesity from the high costs and hazardous side effects of anti-obesity drugs. Nutrition deficiencies can also be addressed through the income pathway- where households use their income to purchase nutritious food. On this pathway, seaweeds can also play a meaningful role. The rapid growth rate and short farming cycles of Seaweed enable farmers to generate income fast enough to meet food and households need once markets are functional. In some communities, seaweed farming has been the major income-generating activity- next to artisanal farming only.

Seaweed is not a “civil bullet” for addressing nutrition deficiencies. However, Seaweed can complement and do so like no other. Unlike the crop agriculture production system that provides food, vitamins, and mineral but at a high cost to the environment, seaweed can provide important vitamins, and minerals while protecting the environment. For example, Seaweed can reduce ocean acidification and when used in animal feed, reduce methane emission from cattle by 82%.

As we head to the 2021 Global Food Summit this September, stakeholders must make and uphold bold and timebound financial and other commitments to supporting establishments like the Safe Seaweed Coalition that are leading the seaweed revolution. When fulfilled, such commitments could be used to address issues on both the supply and demand side of the seesawed subsector. On the supply side, resources could be sued to improve farming techniques to increase production but importantly reduce any potential adverse effect of farmers (especially women) staying longer time farming in water. On the demand side, the resources could be used to conduct an extensive country-specific randomized controlled trial to build and lift evidence on the bioavailability of nutrients in specific species of seaweed, their degree of efficacy in addressing nutrition deficiencies, and the most appropriate culinary methods that can ensure the bioavailability. Resources could also be used to build regulatory systems to address food safety concerns and increase consumers’ confidence in consuming seaweed.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the opinion of The DayLight.

Ambulah Mamey is Agricultural Development Practitioner, based in the United States.  He is skilled and experienced in the design and management of agricultural development projects.

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