Seaweed has been used in cooking for thousands of years, from Japan's rice-filled sushi rolls to squishy Welsh laverbread. Seaweed muesli, though? That's a new thing entirely. But according to seaweed scientist Pia Winberg, it's the best way to get Australians eating more of the green stuff.
"Seaweed is an incredibly nutritious and sustainable food source, but we need to start putting it in food people can just pull off the shelf and use every day," she says. "I love sushi, and I love that more chefs are using seaweed in fine-dining restaurants, but that's not going to have the environmental and health impacts we need."
Winberg founded Australia's first commercial seaweed farm in 2014, near Nowra in NSW and utilising pristine Shoalhaven water. The venture was launched after the scientist spent decades publishing papers on the benefits of seaweed aquaculture and reviewing its nutritional value.
"People were reading the papers, but they weren't following through on the advice," she says. "I realised you have to create an economy to bring science to the world."
Seaweed is an excellent source of omega-3, protein, dietary fibre and trace elements such as iodine. Through her farm's food production arm, PhycoHealth, Winberg is now making seaweed-enhanced corn chips, pasta, salts, dukkah and muesli.
"We made a little concentrated seaweed pellet for the muesli, blended it with cinnamon, and added oats, cranberries, almonds and hemp seeds," she says.
"We had to play around with the flavours for 12 months, but your taste buds aren't overwhelmed by a seaweed flavour. People are now buying 10 boxes at a time. We've been surprised by how popular it has become."
By increasing business through online sales and retail in Sydney and Melbourne, Winberg has just finished building a new processing factory in Huskisson to manufacture seaweed extracts for wound healing and gut health.
"Our next step is to start scaling the farm at Nowra as people begin to add more seaweed to their diets."
Seaweed farming is a relatively new but growing industry in Australia. Research and investment body AgriFutures Australia published the Australian Seaweed Industry Blueprint last week. Lead author and chief executive of the Australian Seaweed Institute, Jo Kelly, says the blueprint offers the foundations needed to mobilise industry development and realise opportunities.
"We've consulted with industry and identified a $100 million plus opportunity for seaweed over the next five years, with potential to scale to $1.5 billion over the next 20 years. This will create thousands of jobs in regional towns and reduce Australia's national greenhouse gas emissions significantly."
About 70 per cent of that projected growth comes from farming native seaweed asparagopsis, shown by the CSIRO to reduce methane emissions from cattle to almost zero when added to their feed.
However, Winberg says it is "a shame" there is so much focus on seaweed's methane-reducing potential in some scientific circles when the aquatic plant is capable of so much more.
"One hectare of a seaweed farm can produce more protein than the same amount of land used for cattle. If everyone reduced their meat intake by one or two days a week, that would have a massive impact on the environment – far greater than feeding cows seaweed to reduce their methane."
Kelly agrees the global population needs to consume less meat, but says that is unlikely to happen immediately. Eating behaviours are hard to change.
"We need to stop fighting over solutions. The environment is at the point where we need many solutions operating at once."