Fields at sea


Fields at sea

“We are still living in the Stone Age at sea. We hunt, collect and dump waste there. It is time that we start cultivating fields there,” says Willem Brandenburg. Seaweed cultivation can play a large role in the food production chain. “There will be a large increase in the demand for new sources of protein.”

“I want to test in practice how weeds are cultivated,” says Brandenburg. “We want to grow sea lettuce at a test location in the Oosterschelde. Short term, this will produce sustainable food for the fish and mussel cultivation. In ten years, it will lead to sea farms where sustainable sources of protein are produced for human consumption.”
Seaweed is already being cultivated in Southeast Asia. “But that’s not the way to do it,” Brandenburg explains. “The cultivation there is harmful to the environment because farmers dump fertilizers in sea.” Brandenburg wants to reclaim nutrients from the sea instead. “30 million tons of phosphate flows into the sea worldwide on a yearly basis, which is more than we extract from the mines in one year. We also lose valuable micronutrients to the sea, which we can reclaim.” By using nutrients from the sea, Brandenburg wants to end that particular cycle. “That would be good for the natural ecosystems.”
New knowledge is needed to allow cultivation a shot at success. “We must make better use of the sea’s potential if we want increased and more sustainable food production. Therefore, we must approach seaweed from a cultivation perspective.
We must produce as rationally as possible and I am in the right place at Wageningen UR in order to do so. It is here that the knowledge of farming, food and the sea come together. You will hardly find that anywhere else in the world.”

Dr. Willem Brandenburg

Project description

Willem Brandenburg: ‘We need fundamental knowledge of seaweed as a crop. What types of seaweed can be used as a crop? How robust is a type and how long can it grow at top speed? The first two years of this project will be used to find out which seaweeds are the most suitable for cultivation. We will also study its proteins and their usage possibilities.

We want to learn exactly how the cultivation process works, what the growth models are and how the crop can develop under different circumstances, so that it can be adapted if needed. We will need to develop measurement methods. Existing equipment is often not suitable for cultivation in saltwater. Also, there is currently no suitable equipment for long distance measurement of the amount of salt and fertilisers present in the water. We need that because we don’t have daily access to the sea to be able to take water samples.

The combination of theory and practice is very important. For instance, what kind of effect will a storm have? What plagues do you need to take into account?’

Research seaweed (photo: Bart Versteeg)
Research seaweed (photo: Bart Versteeg)


What is the effect of this project on global food production?

Willem Brandenburg: “This project embodies innovation and the produce yield potential could be enormous. Earth expects to house 9 billion people by 2050 that all need to be fed. There will be an increased demand for agricultural products and the sea offers enough space to produce food. The cultivation of seaweed can yield more per hectare than plant cultivation on land because different seaweeds use different parts of the sunlight. Besides red weeds, that mainly use the green part of the spectrum, there are also brown and green weeds. By making smart use of the different types of seaweeds, you can make use of a greater part of the sunlight. More biomass per surface area unit.

What can this project mean to society?

Willem Brandenburg: “This project contributes not only to global food production and allows the Netherlands to gain a technological edge, but it also contributes to preventing the depletion of direly needed phosphates. Currently more phosphates flow into the sea than can be extracted from the mines. And that while the global phosphate supply is so limited. If we continue to travel along this road then all of our phosphate supplies will have washed into the sea within a century’s time. Gone forever. Our plan alters this course of action. By cultivating seaweed in the seas, we will not only reclaim phosphate but also invaluable micronutrients. You can see it as a way of bringing the circle of life to a full close.

Who is Willem Brandenburg

“I have worked at Wageningen for 33 years. Upon completion of my studies in Plant Cultivation, I became active in the ‘economics of botany’. I charted what people do with plants and which role plants fulfil in our culture. Along the way, I became interested in the question of how the Dutch farmed before there were dikes. They must have cultivated salt-tolerant crops, and this led me to the seaweed.”

The strength of Wageningen UR

Willem Brandenburg: “Wageningen is unique in the world because it is a place where the knowledge of agriculture, environment, food and sea come together. We are very good at the design of rational production systems. Money will need to be earned with the farming of seaweed. All the knowledge developed at Wageningen of the various aspects of the cultivation process and the processing of protein in food gives us the ideal point of departure.”

Who are the partners in this project?

Willem Brandenburg: “The nature of this project inherently connects with different areas of expertise at Wageningen UR. For this project to be successful, the knowledge of protein in the food industry is paramount and can be found at the Food and Biobased Research at Wageningen UR. The people there are experts on how to extract protein from plants as well as on how to apply protein in other products.

The Dutch government is also very interested in this project and really sees it as an innovation. But they will only invest in the project if others see the merits in it too. Private donators like you can really make the difference.

Your contribution

Willem Brandenburg: “Besides money being needed for fundamental research, a lot of money is needed for the infrastructure. It would be wonderful if we could involve a cable supplier in this project. Entrepreneurs willing to help search for suitable cables with a long life span could be finding themselves at the door of a new market. This is a huge expense for us but also a very promising market for a supplier. The same goes for measurement equipment. We need to collect a lot of data on cultivation and cultivation circumstances with this research. Equipment could be donated directly or in the form of its purchasing price.”

What do we offer donators?

Willem Brandenburg: “Every donator can become directly involved in this project. I enjoy showing our work in- and outside of Wageningen. We could also visit the sample farm. We offer networking opportunities with the WUR Board of Directors and other donators. There is a lot of attention in the media for this subject which can be interesting to those companies wishing to profile themselves in association with this project. I can hold lectures or masterclasses about seaweed cultivation. We can make reference of companies and people if so desired on our website and in other publications related to the project.

The Wageningen University Fund is a charitable organisation and has been denoted as an ‘institution for general benefit’ (ANBI status) in the Netherlands. Your donation may be tax deductible and please refer to the website for more information.

The budget

Research is being conducted by two doctoral students and a senior researcher, supported by assistants. There are material expenses for: transport, taking measurements, laboratory experiments, etc.

We can forward you a detailed budget upon request.

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