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As seaweed industry booms, these researchers are making sure it's safe to eat

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Posted at 7:50 AM, Sep 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-15 09:50:40-04

BIDDEFORD, Maine — The next great American frontier in farming is happening far from the corn and soybean fields of the Midwest. A booming source of agriculture, seaweed, is being grown at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

On a recent afternoon in August, Emily Schutt and her classmate Cara Blaine stood behind the wheel of a small fishing boat. Both are graduate students at the University of New England. They have spent their last year taking water samples and studying different types of kelp.

"It's a lot of seaweed but you need a lot when people are eating it," Schutt said.

The global seaweed market is valued at $15 billion. It's used for everything from human consumption to cattle feed.

"It's an industry that is definitely in its infancy," Schutt said.

With the industry in its infancy, the students want to know which ways of storing seaweed are actually safe.

Over the course of the last year, they found that once seaweed is harvested, it starts to grow pathogens— almost like fungus on food that’s spoiled. That is unless the seaweed is refrigerated.

Jessica Vorse is another graduate student working on the project. Originally from Ohio, she didn't grow up around seaweed but is now fascinated by it.

"We’re hoping industry members can pick it up right away and use it to inform the way they’re processing their product," Vorse said.

As these grad students wrap up a year’s worth of studying kelp, their hope is to relay what they've found and give seaweed farmers tools to process and store their products safely in an industry that is so new, that it's not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.