Clothing, furniture and packaging material. These are just a few of the many things seaweed is used for. Not surprisingly, this versatile natural product is becoming more and more popular. And the seafood is also hot and goes on the plate. Martijn van Damme traded onions for edible seaweed. He started a trading company for sustainably grown sea vegetables. “It is a pioneer market with great potential,” he begins.
Martijn van Damme of the Greens of the North Sea
North Sea Greens is a Dutch company that supplies seaweed products to the consumer market. These are cultivated locally and sustainably in Europe. Martijn founded the company with his father, who was also previously in the onion business. “We are passionate about the food industry. And we’ve been interested in algae for some time, ”he explains.
“Vegetables from the sea are extremely healthy. They contain many vitamins, proteins and minerals. In addition, agricultural land is under pressure. And plant-based foods are the future. You can grow algae on the water. You don’t need fresh water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Algae also effectively contribute to the absorption of CO2. We believe that sustainably grown seaweed can be of huge help to people and the environment. It is the vegetable of the future.
Local and sustainable agriculture
The company buys its seaweed from a fixed group of producers. They cultivate in northwestern Europe, from France to Norway. “We want to source as locally as possible. The cultivation method in Europe is sustainable. All producers meet the defined quality requirements. The quality of the water is also good. All the producers we work with grow at sea, ”explains Martijn.
“A few practice controlled ocean harvesting. They then do not cultivate the produce intentionally but cut it to keep it growing. More algae is also cultivated on land. Sea lettuce, for example, is already widely cultivated in ponds. This controlled environment allows for even greater quality control. “
Seaweed, a real seasonal product, is available fresh from spring to fall. But how is it grown? Van Damme explains: “In the fall, the sporophytes of the algae ‘stick’ to the filaments. This fixation and growth, or rearing, takes place in an indoor space called a hatchery. When the plants are large enough, they are suspended in the sea. You can then start harvesting in the spring. It depends on the growing area and the species.
“Royal Kombu, for example, is harvested in the spring. It sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. You can’t just grow what you want, where you want. technically. As with other natural products, time plays a role. Let’s say there is a storm, then the water gets rough. It can cause losses. This is certainly something to consider when growing on the high seas. Temperature, too, affects growth and therefore yield. “
North Sea Greens sells around ten varieties of seaweed. Besides sea lettuce, this includes Sea Truffle, Sea Spaghetti, Nori, Wakame, Royal Kombu, Atlantic Wakame, and Dulse. All of them are grown sustainably and organically. The products are largely supplied marinated, dried or frozen, ensuring an extended shelf life.
“Freshly brined seaweed lasts from six months to a year. The dried product even up to two years. Dried seaweed has a major advantage. When you soak it in water, it regains almost complete freshness. a small percentage is supplied really fresh. You can keep seaweed fresh for only 48 hours. So it is very expensive and exclusive. Only the most upscale segment wants it, “Martijn continues.
Growing sea vegetables on the plate
North Sea Greens customers include restaurants, hotel industry suppliers, wholesalers and the food industry. “The latter is an important selling market. Think of seaweed burgers, crisps, snacks and sushi leaves. These products are easily absorbed by the market and are in high demand.”
“Yet in Europe, most of the algae in these products is still produced in Asia. They grow much more algae than in Europe. The costs of cultivation in Europe are also quite high. This is due in part to three things. Labor costs are relatively the cultivation method is sustainable. In addition, there are high quality and certification standards ”, explains Martijn.
Vegetables from the sea are also gaining popularity in restaurants. Upscale restaurants are increasingly including them in their dishes. There is also growing interest in mid-range establishments. “It’s a good sign. People, especially in the 25 to 50 age bracket, like to be surprised. Hospitality businesses also want to stand out with new products.”
“Yet some of the market acceptance is still missing. Seaweed is a new product. It has it all. This is due to the growing awareness of sustainable, healthy and plant-based foods. think they would sell themselves, but it’s still quite difficult to get consumers to cook with seafood, ”adds Martijn.
Use recipes and versatility as inspiration
According to him, many people find it difficult to start using seaweed. This is mainly because they don’t know what to do with it. North Sea Greens will therefore soon endeavor to inspire its customers. To this end, the company works, among others, with a famous Dutch chef. “You can do a lot with sea vegetables. You can use them in croquettes and beer. Or as a substitute for salt or as a garnish for main dishes. Or even to flavor salads. So we prefer to call our products sea vegetables. “
“They are much more than algae. It really is food. This chef and we started to create recipes and all kinds of possible uses. We want to inspire customers. Each product has a distinctive flavor. You can use them to transform any product. the meal into something special. Nori, for example, is slightly nutty, while Dulse tastes a bit like bacon when heated. It works great as a seasoning for potatoes. Royal Kombu is often used in broths, such as the famous Japanese soup Dashi, Van Damme explains.
Packaging of the North Sea Greens
“In the beginning, we will mainly focus on the hospitality industry. People must have a positive experience with algae. Then they are more likely to start using them at home and share their experience with others. We also develop consumer products for the retail segment. It’s a lot of fun and an exciting process. But it involves a lot of work. Currently, supermarkets mainly offer Asian products.
“You really can’t compare them to our pure, unprocessed product. Of course, we benefit from the popularity of Asian cuisine. People are also obviously really excited about our seafood. It gives us the confidence to focus even more on market acceptance. There is still a lot to be gained. The production and marketing of seaweed is still a pioneer market – a market with great potential. ”
Large-scale algae production in the North Sea
The cultivation of algae is booming in Europe. However, compared to world production, it is still done on a small scale. It represents about two percent of the world’s culture. European algae production amounts to over 300,000 tonnes per year (fresh weight).
Worldwide, this production exceeds 32 million tonnes (fresh weight). China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea are the main growing countries. Together, these countries cultivate 95% of the world’s algae. More than 75% of this production is intended for the food market.
Martijn says there are plans to expand this culture in Europe. Research into large-scale algae production in the North Sea has been going on for years. Norther is a Belgian wind farm. It is approximately 25 km from Westkapelle in the Netherlands and Zeebrugge in Belgium. There, last year, about 100 ha of algae were planted on a trial basis. This spring they harvested the first.
The cultivation of this wind farm and others in the North Sea is expected to expand considerably in the future. Figures show that European production could reach around ten percent of the global harvest. The positive outlook for algae could prove to be a solution to the global food shortage. And its role in reducing CO2 emissions certainly contributes to this good forecast. In addition, the demand for plant-based, healthy and sustainable foods is increasing rapidly.
Martijn van Damme
North Sea Greens
T: +31 (0) 166-7440199