Can I justify what I do?
I could take several approaches here. Firstly, who cares about emissions from seaweed? I will admit it’s a very small market. There’s myself (it’s my job), my supervisors and the small group of scientists I work with or in the same field as. Aside from that there’s my parents (it’s keeping their eldest child from moving back home jobless and eating all their food), my housemates, friends and boyfriend (they have to politely ask occasionally).
But the general public doesn’t have to care about research for it to be important. Most of the general public probably doesn’t care about the specifics of 90% of scientific research although much of it may one day benefit the general public; cancer cures, gene therapy, food technology…
Is it important? According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) around 14.8 million tonnes of seaweed was produced under aquaculture in 2008 and the industry is expanding at a rate of about 7.7% per year. Seaweed has many uses; human consumption, a source of commercially important productions (algin, iodine, carrageenan…) and a foodstuff for herbivorous farmed species such as abalone. It’s already important financially in many countries in East and Southeast Asia but many more developing countries many also start to capitalise on the seaweed industry in future years due to its benefits as a food and fuel.
Traditional land agriculture is an intensive consumer of fertiliser, water, energy and space, all of which can be reduced or alleviated by farming seaweeds. It is for this reason that macroalgae are being toted as a possible biofuel or carbon sequestration tool.
The Japanese are researching methods of seaweed farming for carbon sequestration and biofuels. The Norwegians are also trialling new infrastructure for cultivation and even closer to home the BioMara project is brining together UK and Irish researchers to investigate the feasibility and viability of producing biofuels from marine biomass. I’ve been trying to follow all these benefits and developments for a year or so, but there’s a wonderful summary out there for anyone new to this written by Eifion Rees on the Ecologist website.
So seaweed is important, and shows no signs of becoming less so. And so what it emits to the atmosphere may also be important. Biogenic emissions may be locally important, affecting the ability of the atmosphere to process other pollutants, taking part in particle production and cloud formation and also affecting tropospheric ozone (a pollutant) and stratospheric ozone (a benefit). As organic compounds they will also be involved in carbon budgets and so should be considered when quantifying the benefits of seaweed as a biofuel or carbon sequestration tool.
All this aside, I do believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Everything we learn has the potential to benefit us, even if it just sets a platform for future work, or encourages someone else to take up science who may then themselves make a discovery. Although, I’m a practical person and knowledge for the sake of it is not for me. I repeat the reasons for my research to people so often it’s taken me a while to write the post as it’s a bit ‘old hat’ to me. But reading it back makes me realize I do have reasons for what I do. Better get back to it!
A brilliant summary article in The Ecologist
FAO (2010) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations; Rome. here
Getting it On
It’s Valentine’s Day and as love is in the air the Guardian have helpfully summarised science’s contribution to coupling up. Read it here