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Sam Elsom is changing the world, one seaweed plant at a time

Why seaweed can help fight climate change

As the CEO of Sea Forest, a world-first seaweed farm in Tasmania, Sam Elsom, who in a former life had his own sustainable fashion brand, wants us to all roll up our sleeves and “give fighting the climate crisis a crack.”

“We are heading towards a climate crisis at an exponential rate where irreversible change is occurring, and even though we have a finite amount of time to act, there are existing solutions, we just need to take action,’’ Sam says down a patchy line in Tasmania.

During a conversation with environmentalist Tim Flannary about the many existing solutions that already exist to halt climate change, seaweed (which has the ability to grow up to 50 times faster than land based plants), was highlighted as an undervalued resource.

“In Australia we have 14,000 species of seaweed, there is more biodiversity than anywhere else in the world, yet we have no seaweed agriculture industry at all. And so it just felt to me like a solution that we really needed to engage with,’’ Sam says.

“We talk about climate change, we talk about increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere, and basically all of the carbon that’s put out there from the cars we drive, to the planes we fly in, and through industry, ends up in the atmosphere. But, the ocean is the second largest carbon sink, and that’s what’s causing increased temperatures in our oceans.’’

The brilliant part of all of this is seaweed filters CO2 out of the ocean, Sam says.

“Which in turn reduces the acidity of the ocean. It also strips out harmful nitrates that cause algal blooms,’’ he says.

“Through photosynthesis, seaweeds capture enormous amounts of carbon. Being able to farm that seaweed at scale is putting habitat where there was formerly no habitat.’’

Sam co-founded Sea Forest in 2019 to commercially grow Asparagopsis seaweed. And with a host of backers, including Australian pro surfer Mick Fanning and a more recent $1million dollar commercialisation grant from the Federal government, Sam and his team are well on their quest to fight climate change. Their current focus is creating a supplement for livestock, which according to the Journal of Cleaner Production, when ingested can reduce their methane production by up to 98 per cent.

“The average cow produces four tonnes of carbon per year and if they eat 30 grams of seaweed a day, they effectively eliminate methane. It’s a small amount of seaweed for a big result in emissions reduction,’’ Sam says.

It’s just the beginning though, with plans to explore all the potential uses for Australian native seaweeds, and what can be achieved through farming different species in addition to Asparagopsis. Sam’s hope is that the technology they create can eventually be licensed to the Northern Hemisphere.

Sam’s wife Sheree and their children Sugar and Captain are just as committed to Sea Forest’s cause. Sam admits their current work life balance is tricky and requires sacrifice given that his home is on Sydney’s northern beaches and Sea Forest’s home base is Tasmania. However for now it’s how it has to be.

“Having children changes everything, you love them more than anything in the world, and you definitely want to try to make the world a better place for them, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do here,’’ Sam says.

“We’ve all been learning together, I never came into this as a seaweed expert, but have learned so much in such a condensed period of time, and they’ve been on that journey with me. We are always talking about seaweed and they love it.”

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