RAMESWARAM, October 31 – Draped in a colorful sari and shirt, Lakshmi Murgesan dives into the azure waters off India’s south coast to collect algae, which is hailed by scientists as a miracle crop that absorbs more than carbon dioxide than trees.
India is the third largest carbon polluter in the world, behind China and the United States, and has yet to set a target date for its emissions to reach net zero.
But authorities are investigating how growing algae could help reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, reverse ocean acidification and improve the marine environment, as well as provide sustainable livelihoods. marginalized coastal communities.
“I do this for my children … It takes a lot of hard work, but I can earn good profits with about four months of work,” said Murgesan, who earns 20,000 rupees (RM1,105) every month by cultivating. fibrous macroalgae.
“I could not have educated my children but after doing this I was able to send my children to college,” she added, smiling as she emerged from the waters of Rameswaram in the Southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Mr Ganesan, a government marine scientist, said algae offers a possible path forward as coastal habitats and wetlands absorb five times more carbon than terrestrial forests.
“It’s a miracle crop in many ways, it’s eco-friendly, it doesn’t use soil or fresh water. It absorbs carbon dioxide dissolved in water during photosynthesis and oxygenates the entire marine ecosystem, ”Ganesan told AFP.
India, which has a coastline of 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles), now aims to increase its production from the current 30,000 tonnes to over one million tonnes each year by 2025.
Globally, algae production was worth around US $ 12 billion (RM 50 billion) in 2019 and is expected to reach US $ 26 billion by 2025, with China and Indonesia holding 80 percent of market shares.
Food, fuel, fertilizer
Murgesan is part of a team of women who work together to grow algae fronds on bamboo rafts, before harvesting and drying them.
The tropical waters of Tamil Nadu provide the perfect environment – with a raft weighing up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) in about 45 days.
The product is then sent for sale in domestic markets as well as in the United States and Australia through AquAgri, a private company that promotes seaweed cultivation in India.
Popular in East and Southeast Asian cuisine, seaweed is also used in medicine, cosmetics, bio-fertilizers, and biofuel.
“Algae have a major use as a crop biostimulant to increase productivity and make crops more resistant to climate-induced stresses. It is also used as a major ingredient in meat and food processing, ”Abhiram Seth, CEO of AquAgri told AFP.
And although it has not been traditionally popular in India, in July the government announced grants of around US $ 85 million for seaweed cultivation initiatives over the next five years.
Seaweed cultivation is already common in Japan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Interest is growing in Australia, which has presented a plan to develop a $ 100 million industry by 2025.
Seth said there is potential for the environment and for farmers like Murgesan.
“Algae cleans the water. At the same time, seaweed growers get a sustainable income without having to move to urban areas to find work, ”he explained.
Grow what we need
Algae do not require fertilizers, fresh water or pesticides. Kelp, one of the most commonly cultivated types, grows at a rate of 61 cm (two feet) per day.
They absorb about 173 million metric tons of carbon each year – the same annual emissions as New York state, according to a 2016 article Geosciences of nature.
And a recent study from the University of California found that mixing red algae in animal feed could help reduce methane emissions.
“We now have strong evidence that algae in livestock feed is effective in reducing greenhouse gases and that the effectiveness does not decrease over time,” said Ermias Kebreab, director of the World Food Center, in the search.
In addition to absorbing carbon dioxide when they are alive, when they die and fall to the bottom of the sea, algae also store carbon in the sediment, Ganesan added.
However, scientists say there may be downsides to growing it.
“Overexploitation of algae has its drawbacks as it is the food of many reef-living creatures like sea urchins and reef fish,” said marine biologist Naveen Namboothri of the Dakshin Foundation, adding that the extraction could disrupt the reef.
Aware of these risks, Murgesan and the other breeders only work 12 days a month and do not harvest during the main fish breeding season, between April and June.
Algae farmer Vijaya Muthuraman, who has never been to school, draws on traditional knowledge.
“We only grow what we need and in a way that doesn’t hurt or kill the fish,” she said, sitting on the shore after the day’s toil, the gentle surf rising and falling behind. she.
The dangers of being hurt by rocky seabeds or stung by jellyfish still lurked for women, but they seemed fearless, laughing and chatting about their worries.
“We face many risks, but this work has given me and my family a certain dignity,” she said, adding: “Our standard of living has improved and now ‘others in my village also want to become seaweed growers. – AFP