FMC’s biopolymers division produces carrageenan from seaweed the company purchases in Norway, Estonia, Canada, the U .S ., Chile, Peru, the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji, Vietnam, Tanzania, Madagascar, Morocco and Mozambique. Used as a thickener in food and other products like toothpaste, carrageenan demand has pushed the worldwide commerce in seaweed to $2 .9 billion annually . Once harvested from wild populations, seaweed used commercially is now primarily produced by families who farm the shallow sea according to practices developed by FMC in the 1960’s.
The species Cottoni spinosum is most commonly cultivated by seaweed farmers whose underwater fields resemble rice paddies when viewed from an airplane. About 70,000 families around the world farm seaweed. In 2003, 150,000 tons of seaweed were grown. Three systems are used to grow seaweed – suspending it from a system of rafts, using stakes in the sea bottom for structure and extending long nylon lines that are kept submerged. Recently, Philippine farmers have developed a low-labor system where seaweed rests inside pens on the sea bottom.
In prime conditions, the biomass of Cottoni spinosum increases ten-fold in six weeks. As with farming on land, management is critical to high yields. Pests include rabbit fish, which eat seaweed and red algae which infect it when salinity drops too low. When seawater is too warm, seaweed suffers from warm water die-off. Heavy wave action from storms raises havoc by tearing seaweed from its moorings and tangling rope lines from which it grows.
Once harvested, seaweed is placed on drying tables in shady locations where it takes about 3 days to it reach 30 percent moisture, the point at which it is a stable, marketable product. When seaweed is brought to drying tables, healthy sections – or propagules – are collected and returned to the water for reseeding.
Seaweed farming generates direct environmental benefits by creating habitat that supports fish where previously only sandy bottoms existed. By offering communities a sustainable way to make a living, it reduces environmentally harmful activities such as harvesting coral and killing endangered sea turtles. Most seaweed operations are small businesses, many of which are owned by women, since tending the plots can be organized around child care and other household duties. In Tanzania, 85 percent of seaweed farms are owned by women . The best way to support this sustainable way of life for thousands of families is to buy products with carrageenan in them.
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