Imagine a natural resource with proven health benefits, both inside and outside the body. It grows abundantly in the wild. It’s easily cultivated – though little understood.
Consider a commonplace raw material with great potential where Indonesia leads the world in exports — yet lags in knowledge.
Turning around this situation is the goal of Noer Khasanah and her colleagues in the Fisheries Department at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University (UGM).
With the help of a New Zealand aid program, they’re working to reveal the hidden curative powers and other qualities of seaweed.
“About 780 varieties have been identified though there could be more,” said Noer, who originally trained as a pharmacist. “However, only 56 are known to be commercially viable.”
She said the reeds — at least 450 types, which grow furthest from the shores are the most economically important.
“But until our research is complete we won’t know if there are others that could yield valuable compounds,” she says.
Indonesia, she says, is a mega-diverse country with huge potential.
“Who knows what we can find and the applications waiting to be uncovered?” Noer said.
“Most discoveries of the properties of seaweed have come from overseas. I’m not happy about that, particularly as we are such a major producer.”
Seaweed derivatives are already used in slimming pills — they work by tricking the body into thinking the stomach is full — and wound dressings.
They’re the source of iodine, which is found in a wide range of medicines and is vital for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland.
The applications do not stop with drugs. Seaweed is part of the diet in many cultures. It is also used in cosmetics and fertilizers.
However the major commercial application is in medicine — including anti-bacterial compounds — and food additives. The extract agar is a staple: If you ate jelly, sampled sushi or drank a soup today, the chances are that your snack included elements of seaweed.
Seaweed is already a useful earner. Four years ago, just three million tonnes were exported; this year the prediction is 10 million, making Indonesia the world’s top producer. Most of it goes to Europe.
If the quality is improved and further processing is undertaken then incomes could be even higher and jobs kept in the republic.
Red seaweed (the others are brown and green), has long been harvested in villages on Java’s south coast and islands in Nusa Tenggara.
Requirements include an accessible beach, few hazards like rocky outcrops and low wave movements — the opposite to a surfer’s dream.
British naturalist Alfred Wallace was among the first to research the archipelago’s seaweed — a misnomer because they’re really marine algae. That was in the 19th century. A few Dutch biologists added to the knowledge, but little has been done until now.
“We’re concentrating on NTT [East Nusa Tenggara] because it’s a poor and undeveloped area,” said the US-trained Noer. “It’s also part of the weed-rich Coral Triangle. [The base is Indonesia, the apex is the Philippines and the sides are Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.]”
Working in her laboratory with staff and students, and using a three-year New Zealand government grant paying Rp 600 million (US$52,504) a year, Noer’s team has started mapping the biodiversity, collecting seaweed from the south coast near Yogyakarta for laboratory analysis.
She’s also sharing the research with Kupang’s Nusa Cendana University and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at University of Auckland.
At this stage Noer thinks the greatest promise lies in antioxidants for human health, and antibacterial agents in aquaculture.
In her submission for funds, she stressed the importance of seeking practical commercial outcomes that work in remote areas where low-tech rules.
Inventing a splendid process that relies on stable power, sterile workrooms and white-coated technicians may not be welcome on rugged islands overlooked by Jakarta’s resource allocators.
Although some species are toxic — “the deeper the weed, the more potent the poison” — seaweed has featured in Japanese and Korean food for centuries.
Above all, seaweed fits marvellously into the current global political agenda: It’s plentiful, organic and sustainable. It doesn’t always need to be harvested from the wild. When cultivated — and it’s a rapid grower — controls can be exercised. Some areas produce year round — others only during the wet season.
Although half the population might question the need for make-up, it’s hard to argue against harvesting a natural product that feeds and cures and even helps clean teeth.
Buyers usually want weed that’s been dried to below 38 percent of its original weight. Simple processes, like washing out salt and sand, keeping it free of contaminants like ropes and chicken droppings, and being more selective, can help improve products and prices.
Weeding out the problems
The difficulties facing social engineers as they try to introduce new ways of working were obvious at the aptly named village of Sauna on the coast of Nusa Penida Island, Southeast of Bali.
In the shade of a giant sea almond on a coral beach, 18 women and girls, some of primary school age, slowly plucked seaweed shoots off a plastic rope.
Men brought them baskets of weed, harvested from an offshore nursery where they’d been planted a month earlier. The shoots were then carted further up the beach and sun dried on plastic sheets. If it starts raining, the weed must be covered quickly. All the procedures are labor intensive.
It takes about five kilos of wet weed to make one kilo of dried product.
The top quality weed fetches Rp 16,000 (US$ 1.40) a kilogram. Other weeds get less than half that price.
An earlier attempt by a community agency to cut-out the middle men and deal directly with exporters was countered by a sudden surge in prices that the agency couldn’t match. When they gave up, the price tumbled.
The people see no urgency to change. “If you want me to work harder I need more money,” said 60-year-old Suwarto.
The women had only vague ideas of why the weed was wanted overseas and the end product. “We just plant, grow, harvest and dry,” they said. “After that it’s not our business.”