Most of us have tried seaweed, thanks to sushi. But would you be willing to dine on jellyfish, sea cucumber or sea urchin? Asian nations have been consuming them for centuries, and a growing number of experts say we should be, too.
The calls come as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts we’ll need a 70 per cent increase in food production to feed the world’s nine billion people by 2050.
“In Australia, we often look to the land as the source of food production, and indeed our cultural identity,” Elspeth Probyn, professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, says.
“Faced with the ecological challenges of feeding humanity, we need to formulate radically new and sustainable ways of fishing and farming the oceans.”
The keyword is sustainable. According to the Save the Oceans, Feed the World campaign by conservation organisation Oceana, if present fishing trends continue, we’ll only have enough wild seafood to feed half of the world’s population by 2050.
Aquatic farms of the future
According to Probyn, one of the most promising ideas for sustainable ocean farming is something called integrated marine trophic aquaculture.
“This is where you farm species that feed off each other – say fish, then mussels, then seaweed, then sea cucumber. It’s based on centuries-old practices in Asia, where you might have a duck with vegetarian fish in a rice paddy. The faeces of the duck fertilise the paddy and provide nutrients for the fish. This system is massive in China and we should look to developing it in Australia.”
Marine scientist Dr Pia Winberg agrees Australia’s missed the boat when it comes to making the most of our oceans.
“China began harvesting brown kelp seaweed in the 1970s and 1980s,” she says. “Japan has been cultivating nori seaweed, used for sushi, since the 1930s and 1940s.
“The global industry is worth $6 billion a year. Just like its unique land-based wildlife, Australia has its own types of seaweed that could be turned into a lucrative industry.”
Winberg, who until last year was director of the Shoalhaven Marine and Freshwater Centre at the University of Wollongong, is setting out to prove it by opening Australia’s first seaweed farm, Venus Shell Systems.
For years, she’s been working hard to get seaweed on the menu in more forms than sushi, and was the inspiration behind Coastal Chef (Harbour Publishing), a book of seaweed recipes by top Aussie chefs.
“[The chefs] were given three or four types from a selection of 27, and came back with incredible ideas ranging from seaweed pasta to ice cream.”
Projects such as Winberg’s recipe book look set to change our habits.
“It’s chefs who change food culture,” Winberg says. “Look how MasterChef got young people back into the kitchen. The more that items like seaweed appear on menus, the more they’re normalised.”
Probyn agrees: “People’s appetites probably change faster than conscious ideas,” she says. “We started eating in a ‘multicultural’ way before ideas about multiculturalism were widely accepted by the greater public. So, yes, packaged in the right way, people will eat things that previously they didn’t.”
Probyn says we need to increase consumption of molluscs and small, vegetarian fish that reproduce quickly and are low on the food chain, such as anchovies, sardines and whitebait. Oceana says these species provide a lean protein at a cost per kilo lower than meat, require no fresh water or arable land, and produce little carbon dioxide.
“Take seaweed,” Winberg says. “Its waste products are oxygen and clean water.” What’s not to love about seaweed? Especially if you’re not quite ready to throw a jellyfish on the barbie.
The mission for sustainable fish
Consumers need to know more about what they’re buying in order to make sustainable choices, chef-turned-consumer-advocate Matthew Evans says. “More than 70 per cent of the fish we eat is imported, but this isn’t widely publicised.”
This is one of the eye-opening facts he learnt while filming the three-part What’s The Catch? documentary, which airs Thursdays on SBS.
Evans fronts the Label My Fish campaign (labelmyfish.com), which is calling for laws to force businesses to state the name and origin of their fish, and how it’s farmed or caught. “Most people care about what they eat,” he says. “But they can’t make a valid choice without information.”