Jacob von Manteuffel is passionate about macroalgae. A self-proclaimed ‘seaweed freak’, the entrepreneur has co-founded two food companies alongside Deniz Ficicioglu that put marine plants at the centre of the plate.
Unique to Manteuffel and Ficicioglu’s ventures is their decision to use only ocean-cultivated seaweed. “That is essential to our mission,” explained Manteuffel at ProVeg Incubator and Zintinus’ Future Food Series event last week, who argues cultivating seaweed in this way can help remedy our ‘broken’ oceans.
‘The oceans are too f*cked up for us just to be sustainable’
Seaweed is celebrated for its sustainability credentials. When cultivated in the ocean, it requires minimal reliance on limited natural resources.
Most obviously, growing in saltwater means that no fresh water is required in seaweed cultivation. The same goes for land use: all of BettaF!sh and Nordic Oceanfruit’s seaweed is grown in the ocean. As a result, it requires no fertiliser or pesticide use.
According to Manteuffel, ocean-cultivated seaweed has ‘multiple’ positive impacts on the ocean. “They can increase biodiversity, counter acidification, [and] improve water quality,” he told delegates. “So they can be a positive, regenerative force.
“Instead of just being sustainable, we always say the oceans are too f*cked up right now that…we have to have a positive impact. [The oceans] are so broken already, and we have to change…that by cultivating seaweed.”
Growing seaweed off-shore in coastal communities offers other key ‘positive impacts’, particularly by supporting livelihoods.
There are more than 700m people worldwide who earn their livelihoods from fishing. Yet current unsustainable practices are ‘destroying the oceans’. The co-founder believes switching from fishing to seaweed cultivation offers an opportunity to turn the tide on ocean degradation.
“They have the infrastructure and the know-how to cultivate seaweed instead…We have to somehow think of livelihoods and people as well. We take them into the equation and we try to make more people eat seaweed, so that then more…fishermen and fisherwomen can transition towards seaweed farming.”
Two distinct approaches to seaweed-based products
While Manteuffel and Ficicioglu’s two food brands both celebrate seaweed, they approach the ingredient in distinct ways.
Nordic Oceanfruit throws seaweed in the spotlight with a range of readymade, organic seaweed salads. These include, amongst others, a Korean-style seaweed salad, and an Italian-inspired seaweed salad.
The start-up has had to build its supply chain from the ground up. Consuming seaweed in this way is relatively new to Europe, the co-founder explained. “Obviously, there is an older industry in East Asia, but here it’s a pretty new game, and we have started to build our supply chain for our organic brand.”
The co-founders’ other brand, BettaF!sh, takes a different approach. The company mimics mainstream fish products, starting with tuna, with the help of seaweed and other plant-based ingredients. Indeed, BettaF!sh is the first company developing 100% plant-based tuna alternatives mainly created with proteins from the sea.
“We mix seaweed with other plant ingredients, depending on the product,” the co-founder explained. “Talking about the pure tuna product, we mix it with other fibres and plant proteins to get the texture and the flavour profile of tuna. It tastes just like tuna.
“It wouldn’t be possible without the seaweed, but it also probably…wouldn’t be possible only with seaweed.”
The vegan tuna is already being sold in sandwiches in Germany and Austria, with a vegan tuna pizza product now available in stores as of just two weeks ago.
“We are producing [our sandwiches and pizzas] at a pretty large scale industrially…we have been happy to see how much our consumers love it. If you share our sandwiches with someone, they will not know if it’s real tuna or not,” said Manteuffel.
The ‘Stone Age’ of seaweed cultivation
It is estimated several thousand species of seaweed exist. Yet in the food industry, just a handful end up on consumers’ plates.
Manteuffel likened this to lining up every crop variety we know of, and cultivating just three across the whole of Europe. “We are pretty much in the Stone Age in this sense. Although 70% or more of our planet is covered in ocean, we know nothing about these plants.”
The co-founder continued: “There is so much space for innovation and so much space to conquer new flavours, new textures…”
Manteuffel and Ficicioglu’s R&D team is investigating multiple varieties, but predominantly want to focus on plants that are already being cultivated, which ‘is not many right now’. “But we are working with a variety of plants, some of them might be wild harvested right now and hopefully going into cultivation soon,” we were told.
Diversifying seaweed species is not the only challenge facing the sector. By cultivating in the ocean, it is also on high alert for contaminants prevalent in other forms of aquaculture.
“In every segment of plant cultivation, fish cultivation, or agriculture, you have to watch for pollutants, and we do this as well,” said Manteuffel. The founders’ attention to this area is paying off.
“We make sure we grow our crops in very clean waters and in safe areas. We also monitor the quality of the compounds, and so far we’ve never had any problems with pollutants in our crops.”
Seaweed is cultivated by hand, but that ‘doesn’t hold us back’
Unlike crops with well-established supply chains, such as soy, pea, or fava bean, seaweed cultivation is largely conducted by hand.
This is not as unusual as it sounds, suggested Manteuffel, who pointed to examples of hand-harvested fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and asparaguses. “It’s not like everything is being harvested by robots right now. And seaweed is just one of many products that involves a lot of work and labour right now.”
At the same time, the brands have ‘no problem’ in purchasing ‘large amounts’ of seaweed at a suitable price. BettaF!sh is even able to sell its vegan tuna sandwich at price parity with a conventional tuna sandwich.
The fact that everything is done by hand ‘doesn’t hold us back’, he stressed. As long as demand remains, or indeed, increases, it will ‘improve for the future’. “There will be more automation.”
Current cultivation techniques are, on the whole, sustainable, suggested the co-founder. Of course, if marine plants are harvested from the wild in a ‘really brutal’ fashion, it will harm the environment, but Manteuffel believes ocean-cultivated seaweed has a ‘positive impact in most cases’.
“I see seaweed cultivation as one of the few things that humans can do that gets a positive impact the more than you do it.
“So the more we cultivate seaweed in the ocean, the better the impact can be on the oceans. It’s a huge opportunity to have a regenerative, positive impact.”