For example, swapping some soybeans for seaweed would mean that the planet’s supply of poultry, pork, dairy, and beef would require less arable land for feed crops. This could reduce deforestation and degradation in sensitive ecosystems such as the Amazon and the Cerrado, and decrease the need for resources like pesticides, water, and fertilizer. Scientists have also suggested that adding seaweed to the diets of cattle could significantly reduce methane emissions without diminishing milk production.
Moreover, by combating ocean acidification, seaweed farms help to protect local shellfish populations—an important source of nutrition for coastal communities around the world.
Paul Dobbins is listing all these benefits with earnest enthusiasm from his office in New England. He is WWF’s lead specialist on seaweed and shellfish, but before that he spent a decade working on a commercial kelp farm. This means he’s personally familiar not only with the public perception that his favorite crop is little more than a slimy beach weed—but also with the plant’s real-world virtues.
“I’m a convert,” he admits with a chuckle. “But I actually come to it as a cutthroat capitalist.”
Like Gregersen, Dobbins is especially excited about seaweed’s ability to capture or “take up” carbon. Yet despite its potential, seaweed farming is still a long way from making even a dent in mitigating the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Humans have been harvesting seaweed for thousands of years, and seaweed cultivation currently takes place in around 50 countries. But to make any meaningful impact, the industry must scale up in a big way. This means expanding beyond the calm waters of shorelines and bays—where all but three of today’s farms are found—and into the exposed open ocean.
And that’s exactly what WWF wants to achieve. With the support of the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, WWF-US is investing around $884,000 in Ocean Rainforest to help the company test seaweed rigs in offshore, high-energy environments, expanding production and taking the industry to the next level. By investing in this small Faroese company, WWF is hoping to catalyze a shift in how humanity thinks about ocean farming.
The money is known as an impact investment: Its aim is “not only to realize a profit but also to generate a measurable social or environmental impact,” explains Nik Sekhran, WWF’s chief conservation officer.
Spending almost a million dollars on a proof-of-concept seaweed farm may seem like a risky strategy. And it is risky—that’s the point.
With huge technical challenges and no roadmaps, open-ocean seaweed farming doesn’t make much sense in your average investment portfolio—at least not yet. But for an investor looking to make a difference, it’s an attractive opportunity.
The maxim that high risks lead to high rewards remains true; in this case, the reward could be a game-changing tool for tackling climate change. Analysis by WWF, based on figures from the World Bank, suggests that farming just 6.51% of the world’s exclusive economic zones (within 200 nautical miles of shore) would utilize all the carbon that is added to the oceans each year to begin to reverse ocean acidification.
The Grantham Trust is no stranger to risky, mission-driven bets. “Mitigating climate change requires accelerating innovation,” says investment strategist Jeremy Grantham, who founded one of the world’s first index funds in the 1970s. But impact investing is a new strategy for WWF—one that aims to flip how the organization approaches the problem altogether. It’s not conservation as usual.