While mainstream media tends to focus more on electrical power and fossil fuel emissions, underneath it all, for us to sustain, we need to eat. And starvation is growing in increasing parts of the world. The amount of land used for farming is shrinking, as are farmers’ livelihoods. Then we add concerns about the health impacts of chemicals used for fertilizers, or the effect of genetically-modified seeds. This discovery may have huge impact on our ability to provide healthful food for our population. Comments afterwards.
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The rice of the sea: how a tiny grain could change the way humanity eats
Ángel León made his name serving innovative
seafood. But then he discovered something in
the seagrass that could transform our under-
standing of the sea itself – as a vast garden.
Seascape: the state of our
oceans is supported by
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
9 Apr 2021
Growing up in southern Spain, Ángel León paid little attention to the meadows of seagrass that fringed the turquoise waters near his home, their slender blades grazing him as he swam in the Bay of Cádiz.
It was only decades later – as he was fast becoming known as one of the country’s most innovative chefs – that he noticed something he had missed in previous encounters with Zostera marina: a clutch of tiny green grains clinging to the base of the eelgrass.
His culinary instincts, honed over years in the kitchen of his restaurant Aponiente, kicked in …
Could this marine grain be edible?
Lab tests hinted at its tremendous potential: gluten-free, high in omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, and contains 50% more protein than rice per grain, according to Aponiente’s research. And all of it growing without freshwater or fertiliser.
The find has set the chef, whose restaurant won its third Michelin star in 2017, on a mission to recast the common eelgrass as a potential superfood, albeit one whose singular lifecycle could have far-reaching consequences. León says …
“In a world that is three-quarters
water, it could fundamentally trans-
form how we see oceans. This could
be the beginning of a new concept of
understanding the sea as a garden.”
It’s a sweeping statement that would raise eyebrows from anyone else. But León, known across Spain as el Chef del Mar(the chef of the sea), has long pushed the boundaries of seafood, fashioning chorizos out of discarded fish parts and serving sea-grown versions of tomatoes and pears at his restaurant near the Bay of Cádiz. He says …
“When I started Aponiente 12 years ago,
my goal was to open a restaurant that
served everything that has no value in the
sea. The first years were awful because
nobody understood why I was serving
customers produce that nobody wanted.”
Still, he pushed forward with his “cuisine of the unknown seas”. His efforts to bring little-known marine species to the fore were recognised in 2010 with his first Michelin star. By the time the restaurant earned its third star, León had become a fixture on Spain’s gastronomy scene: a trailblazing chef determined to redefine how we treat the sea.
What León and his team refer to as “marine grain” expands on this, in one of his most ambitious projects to date. After stumbling across the grain in 2017, León began looking for any mention of Zostera marina being used as food. He finally found an article from 1973 in the journal Science on how it was an important part of the diet of the Seri, an Indigenous people living on the Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico, and the only known case of a grain from the sea being used as a human food source.
Next came the question of whether the
perennial plant could be cultivated.
In the Bay of Cádiz, the once-abundant plant had been reduced to an area of just four sq metres, echoing a decline seen around the world as seagrass meadows reel from increased human activity along coastlines and steadily rising water temperatures.
Working with a team at the University of Cádiz and researchers from the regional government, a pilot project was launched to adapt three small areas across a third of a hectare (0.75 acres) of salt marshes into what León calls a “marine garden”.
It was not until 18 months later – after the plants had produced grains – that León steeled himself for the ultimate test, said Juan Martín, Aponiente’s environmental manager. Martín says …
“Ángel came to me, his tone very serious,
and said: ‘Juan, I would like to have some
grains because I have no idea how it tastes.
Imagine if it doesn’t taste good. It’s incredible.
He threw himself into it blindly, invested his own
money, and he had never even tried this marine grain.”
León put the grain through a battery of recipes, grinding it to make flour for bread and pasta and steeping it in flavours to mimic Spain’s classic rice dishes. León says …
“It’s interesting. When you eat it with
the husk, similar to brown rice, it has
a hint of the sea at the end. But with-
out the husk, you don’t taste the sea.”
He found that the grain absorbed flavour well, taking two minutes longer to cook than rice and softening if overcooked.
In the marine garden, León and his team were watching as the plant lived up to its reputation as an architect of ecosystems: transforming the abandoned salt marsh into a flourishing habitat teeming with life, from seahorses to scallops.
The plant’s impact could stretch much further. Capable of capturing carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and described by the WWF as an “incredible tool” in fighting the climate crisis, seagrass absorbs 10% of the ocean’s carbon annually despite covering just 0.2% of the seabed.
News of what León and his team were up to soon began making waves around the world. Robert Orth, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who has spent more than six decades studying seagrass, says …
“When I first heard of it, I was going
‘Wow, this is very interesting. I don’t
know of anyone that has attempted
to do what this chef has done.’”
According to Orth, seagrass has been used as insulation for houses, roofing material and even for packing seafood, but never cultivated as food. It is an initiative riddled with challenges. Wild seagrass meadows have been dying off at an alarming rate in recent decades, while few researchers have managed to successfully transplant and grow seagrass, he says.
In southern Spain, however, the team’s first marine garden suggests potential average harvests could be about 3.5 tonnes a hectare. While the yield is about a third of what one could achieve with rice, León points to the potential for low-cost and environmentally friendly cultivation.
“If nature gifts you with 3,500kg with-
out doing anything – no antibiotics,
no fertiliser, just seawater and move-
ment – then we have a project that sug-
gests one can cultivate marine grain.”
A pilot project was successful in cultivating seagrass and obtaining grains that Ángel León then tried in different recipes.
The push is now on to scale up the project, adapting as much as five hectares of salt marshes into areas for cultivating eelgrass. Every success is carefully tracked, in hopes of better understanding the conditions – from water temperature to salinity – that the plant needs to thrive.
While it is likely to be years before the grain becomes a staple at Aponiente, León’s voice rises with excitement as he considers the transformative possibility of Zostera marina’s minuscule, long-overlooked grain – and its reliance on only seawater for irrigation. He says …
“In the end, it’s like everything. If you
respect the areas in the sea where
this grain is being grown, it would
ensure humans take care of it. It
means humans would defend it.”
He and his team envision a global reach for their project, paving the way for people to harness the plant’s potential to boost aquatic ecosystems, feed populations and fight the climate crisis. León says …
“We’ve opened a window. I believe
it’s a new way to feed ourselves.”
• • • • • •
Beginning with a comment from D, the entity my wife channels …
“As the world warms, the crops that have been grown may no longer be viable. In some cases, the viability of a crop may need to move further from the equator to thrive. In some cases, new ideas for food sources will need to be explored. The rice from sea weed is one brilliant example of a new food source. In parts of the world, sea weed has been used as seasoning and as a wrap for a very long time. It is heartwarming to see a new use for a plant that is abundant.”
It’s going to take someone with business interests to organize a way to do mass harvesting of sea rice, someone to develop new recipes, and someone to develop new ways to package and distribute this food.
Amazon has changed the face of retail. It saves us driving time and makes all sorts of products available at our fingertips. True, it did make Jeff Bezos a billionaire, but it’s had widespread benefit to many, many people. And it’s likely reduced the amount of driving time – and fossil fuel emissions – we spend.
The same can be said for other entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to improve upon ways that improve life-quality for many.
Our Earth is a water planet. This excellent food source grows from our natural habitat. And it’s fully renewable, therefore sustainable.
This may be another opportunity for another entrepreneur to evolve this small-scale development into something that can feed billions, healthfully and for a very long time.