The author, Lynn Cornish, is the Seed Stock Manager for Cultivated Seaweeds in the Food Science R&D Department, Human and Animal Wellness™ Division of Acadian Seaplants Limited.
If there’s anything the good people of Ireland are familiar with, it is with various ‘times of crisis’! Forced to eke out meagre livelihoods on lands consisting mostly of rock, or by harvesting the various offerings at the seashore, the Irish are widely recognized as a strong and resilient people. Survivors, to be sure…and ‘solid as rocks’ in their own right!
During the Great Famine that devastated the country from 1845-1849, the Irish were forced to stave off poverty and starvation in any way possible, but around a million people still succumbed to this terrible, and seemingly hopeless travesty. However, anyone with access to the coast, which would include the fishers, sheep farmers, and other local crop farmers, could legally harvest the seaweeds of the foreshore and intertidal zone. These seaweeds, most likely an assortment of reds, browns, and greens, were used to feed the farm animals1., and to fertilize2. the thin layer of soil, so devoid of nutrients, in which crops such as potatoes and cabbage were grown.
During the famine though, access to the foreshore with its rich marine vegetation of nutritionally dense seaweeds was really considered a ‘last resort’ for the starving population, hence the association by many, that seaweeds are a food for the poor and desperate. Another example, in the foreword to that wonderful and informative cookbook, Prannie Rhatigan’s “Irish Seaweed Kitchen”, the distinguished Dr. Michael Guiry highlighted a stanza written around the 12th century. It describes an Irish monk’s day (duileasc is dillisk, or dulse):
Seal ag buain duilisg do charraig, A while gathering duileasc from the rock,
seal ag aclaidh, a while fishing,
seal ag tabhairt bhídh do bhoctaibh, a while giving food to the poor,
seal i gcaracair. a while in a cell.
Perhaps it was pure serendipity, luck, or something else, but by eating seaweeds, and perhaps some shellfish, the destitute were able to survive. Scientific investigations today, have verified the many nutritional benefits of dietary seaweeds, but unfortunately for the starving, fat levels are too low to sustain health or wellness indefinitely. Without a doubt, the more we learn of seaweeds’ beneficial attributes, the more clearly we can view them as unsung heroes, especially in times of crisis.
Indeed, seaweeds have not only been there in times of famine, but they have also played roles in warfare, disease outbreaks, nuclear accidents, fire protection, and survival, and now, new technologies are helping to create new and novel applications like sustainable packaging, and to try and address so many other 21st century needs – naturally.
1.Margareth Øverland,* Liv T Mydland and Anders Skrede; “Marine macroalgae as sources of protein and bioactive compounds in feed for monogastric animals”, in Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, May 23, 2018.
2.Maja K. Thorsen & Stephen Woodward & Blair M. McKenzie; “Kelp (Laminaria digitata) increases germination and affects rooting and plant vigour in crops and native plants from an arable grassland in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland”, in Journal of Coastal Conservation, September, 2010.