Executive Summary

Seaweeds or macroalgae, often found in the marine ecosystem, are deemed as ‘wonder plants of the sea’, due to their ecological, social, and economic contributions. Considering the importance of seaweeds in the blue bioeconomy, this study explored the potential applications/ economic uses of seaweeds, comprehended the current scenario of global and Indian seaweed sector, delineated the status of seaweed value-addition industries/ products in India, collated seaweed value-addition technologies developed in India, analyzed the trends in development of seaweed value-addition technologies, studied the R&D trends in seaweed value-addition in India, and accordingly formulated recommendations for establishing sustainable seaweed value chains and to transform the Indian seaweed sector into a self-sustainable industry.

Seaweeds have been profoundly contributing to humans, since times immemorial. Seaweeds provide various ecosystem services such as oxygen production, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, shoreline protection etc. Seaweeds also have the potential to contribute towards sustainable healthy diets, achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provide sustainable livelihoods, especially for the coastal communities. Seaweeds are an ample source of macronutrients and micronutrients, thus have the potential to contribute towards global nutritional security. Seaweeds are also known to contain a variety of secondary metabolites, with wide-ranging biological activities.

Seaweeds have diverse applications and are used as food, functional foods, pharmaceuticals/ nutraceuticals, cosmetics, plant biostimulants, animal feed etc. Seaweeds are consumed directly as food as well as used as an ingredient in various preparations. The polysaccharides extracted from seaweeds are widely used in the food industry as functional ingredients. Pharmaceutical application of seaweeds encompasses treatment of various diseases like goiter, stomach disorders, influenza, mumps, osteoarthritis, kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, eye diseases etc. The sulfated polysaccharides present in seaweeds have the potential to impede replication of viruses belonging to the genera Coronavirus; hence seaweeds could be used to combat COVID-19 infections. Seaweed bioactives such as terpenoids, phenolic compounds, carotenoids, polysaccharides, mycosporin-like amino acids etc. are used in the production of cosmetics, as active ingredients. Due to the presence of various phytohormones such as cytokinins, auxins, gibberellins etc., seaweeds are used as plant biostimulant. Supplementation of seaweed in feed can reduce emission of enteric methane by ruminants and also results in enhanced growth and productivity of the animal. Seaweeds also find novel application in production of biofuels, bioplastics, medical textiles, solar cells, energy storage systems, bioink etc.

Globally, 35.76 million tons of fresh seaweed was produced in the year 2019 by 48 species cultured and/or collected from 49 countries. Out of the total seaweed production, 34.68 million tons was contributed by farmed seaweeds and the remaining 1.08 million tons by wild-collected seaweeds. The dominant species groups contributed to the production are Laminaria/Saccharina, Undaria, Kappaphycus/Eucheuma, Gracilaria, and Porphyra. The global seaweed production was dominated by Asia (97.38%); with China (56.75%), Indonesia (27.86%), Republic of Korea (5.09%), and the Philippines (4.20%) as the major producers. The global seaweed culture was dominated by China, Indonesia and Republic of Korea and seaweed production from wild collection was dominated by Chile, China and Norway.

Global trade of aquatic plants grew from USD 65 million in 1976 to about USD 1.3 billion in 2018. The major exporters of aquatic plants in 2018 were Indonesia, Chile and Republic of Korea and leading importers include China, Japan and the United States of America. As per an estimate, in 2020 the value of commercial seaweed market in the world was USD 14.8 billion, and the value is anticipated to reach between USD 21-24 billion in 2027. Currently, numerous players are present in the global seaweed processing/ value-addition market manufacturing diversified food and non-food products. Worldwide, innovative entrepreneurs have invested significantly in seaweed sector leading to creation of startups producing novel seaweed-based products like bioplastics, 3D printed vegan steaks, biopolymers, livestock feed supplement etc.

Globally, numerous projects and collaborations/ networks have been forged to develop a vast array of innovative technologies and novel products from seaweed and its commercialization. Some of the key projects are ‘SeaGas Project’ (biomethane production), ‘Seaweed production systems with high-value applications’ (isolation of bioactive compounds following biorefinery approach), ‘BIOCARB-4-FOOD’ (manufacturing carbohydrate-based extracts and fibers from residual biomass), ‘ProSeaFood’ (augmentation of digestibility and nutrient availability of brown seaweeds by application of advanced processing techniques), ‘Seaweeds for Novel Applications and Products’ (use of biorefinery processes to isolate alginates, cellulose, fucoidans, carrageenans etc.), ‘PlastiSea’ (development of bioplastic materials) etc.

In Indian waters, 844 species of seaweeds belonging to 217 genera of 69 families have been reported so far. Seaweed resources of India are mainly distributed in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Abundant seaweed beds are also observed in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Odisha. Since early 1950s, Gelidiella acerosa and Gracilaria edulis were harvested commercially for manufacturing of agar and Sargassum, and Turbinaria for alginate production in India. Commercial farming of seaweed in India commenced with cultivation of Kappaphycus alvarezii by Pepsi Foods Ltd. at Mandapam, Tamil Nadu, with technical assistance from Marine Algal Research Station of CSIR-Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSIR-CSMCRI) in 2001. Subsequently, aquaculture of K. alvarezii was expanded to other regions of the state of Tamil Nadu as well as to other parts of the country including the state of Gujarat. While most of the efforts are focused on cultivation of Kappaphycus, farming of other seaweed species belonging to the genus Gracilaria, Hypnea etc. has also been attempted in India . In terms of wet weight, production of aquatic plants including seaweeds in India decreased from 34922 tons in 2009 to 27937 tons in 2018, contributing merely 0.08% to the global production. The quantity of seaweed and seaweed-based products imported to India greatly exceeds the exports. The value-addition of seaweed products exported from India is also very low, when compared to the products imported.

Most of the seaweed processing industries in India are micro-enterprises and mainly use wild harvested seaweeds as raw material. The main seaweed-based value-added products commercially manufactured in India are agar, alginate, carrageenan and plant biostimulant/ biofertilizer. Annual production of agar and alginate in India is 120 tons (30% of requirement), and 1000 tons (less than 40% of requirement) respectively. Carrageenan is manufactured In India from cultured Kappaphycus alvarezii and the annual requirement of carrageenan in India is estimated at 1500-2000 tons. Even though several players are present in Indian biostimulants market, the biostimulants are mostly imported and packaged and marketed in India. However, a few industries are indigenously producing plant biostimulants from Kappaphycus and Sargassum, with the technology developed by CSIR-CSMCRI, Bhavnagar.

A few industries are also producing seaweed-based nutraceuticals and functional foods. Various nutraceutical products/ formulations for treatment of diseases like arthritis, type-2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, dyslipidemia, hypertension, osteoporosis etc. developed and commercialized by ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (ICAR-CMFRI), Cochin, are available in the Indian market. Microencapsulated dietary supplement formulation of fucoidan and green tea extract, and carrageenan-based hand sanitizer, developed and commercialized by ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (ICAR-CIFT), are being produced in India. Functional foods such as seaweed blended grape juice, seaweed cookies, seaweed supplemented yoghurt, etc., developed and commercialized by ICAR-CIFT are also manufactured in India. Production of seaweed-based cosmetics is in its nascent stage in India and only very few products, mostly belonging to skin care category, is being produced currently.

Key seaweed-based technologies ready for commercialization in India are antimicrobial ointment, probiotic nutraceutical to improve intestinal gut microflora, extract for use against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, biodegradable films based on semi-refined kappa carrageenan, seaweed polysaccharides-based foot care gel, seaweed dietary fibre, seaweed incorporated extruded snacks, edible sachet bioplastics, fucoxanthin rich supercritical fluid extraction extract, seaweed tea, Kappaphycus alvarezii sap extractor etc. Seaweed-based technologies developed at pilot scale in India include seaweed incorporated chocolate, extraction of phycobiliproteins for food applications, polysaccharides extracted spent seaweed biomass for bioethanol production, immunostimulant for fish etc.

Major laboratory scale seaweed-based technologies developed in India are preparation of graded agarose, preparation of sprayable aqueous chitin formulations fortified with plant macronutrients, preparation of suture, seaweed noodles, conjugated alginate for biomedical applications, carrageenan-based ointment, seaweed-based composite scaffolds, seaweed jerky, preparation of seaweed polysaccharide nanoparticle, antibacterial composition against Aeromonas infection in aquaculture, anticoagulant peptide from Nori, nutraceutical capsule rich in polyphenols, extending shelf life of tomatoes by coating seaweed gel, extraction of ulvan from green seaweed and use as therapeutic agent etc.

During the last two decades (2001-2020), eighty-nine patent applications related to seaweeds were published in India, of which sixty-five were related to seaweed value-addition. However, only sixteen patents were granted in the area of seaweed value-addition in the last twenty years. Among the granted patents, five were granted to foreign entities and rest was awarded to Indian institutions. The fields of invention of awarded patents include biochemistry, chemical, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, food, mechanical engineering, polymer technology, traditional knowledge biotechnology, and traditional knowledge chemical.

The major seaweed value-addition patents granted in India include production of carrageenan and carrageenan products, production of phycocolloid and liquid fertilizer from fresh seaweeds, biodegradable films based on semi refined kappa carrageenan, integrated process for biofuels production, preparation of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory concentrates from brown and red seaweeds, cosmetic composition containing brown seaweed extract, anti-inflammatory principles in a preparation of brown seaweeds, isolation of anticoagulant peptide from Porphyra hydrolysate, preparation of anti-oxidative edible film from fucoidan, nutritional rich chocolate composition, preparation of seaweed polysaccharide-based hydrophobic biocompatible ropes etc.

The research papers published by the Indian researchers on seaweed value-addition in the last decade (2011-2020) are broadly in the realm of human health and nutrition, agriculture, animal husbandry, and industrial applications. Studies on human health mostly investigated antimicrobial, anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive, anti-cancer, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective, anticoagulant, biomedical, and disease control properties of seaweeds. Several researchers studied the effect of application of sap extracted from different seaweed species on various crops/ plants. The seaweed species investigated extensively for use as biostimulants were Kappaphycus alvarezii, Gracilaria edulis, and Sargassum wightii. Use of seaweeds as feed supplement for aquatic organisms, cattle, poultry etc. was also evaluated by various researchers. Numerous studies have explored application of seaweeds in water treatment, production of biofuels, bioplastics, textiles, alkaline fuel cells etc.

After considering aspects such as seaweed biomass supply, sustainable valorization for value-added product development, research and technology development, policies etc., recommendations were formulated with different implementation time frames. The major short-term recommendations include preparation of a national seaweed policy for establishing a sustainable and resilient seaweed industry in India, formulation of guidelines for leasing natural water bodies for seaweed aquaculture, providing crop insurance, providing minimum assured price for seaweed biomass, supplementation of seaweed in cattle feed to tackle methane emission from ruminants, developing seaweed friendly policy framework with required certification etc.

The medium-term recommendations consists of establishing seed banks for seaweeds under PPP mode; formation of a non-profit company for supply of quality seed materials; establishing seaweed parks in Gujarat and in the Islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep; development of robust, cost-effective, upstream production technologies for open ocean seaweed aquaculture; establishing a consortium of government, industry and R&D institutions to work in a mission mode for developing farming and processing technologies; establishing incubation centers; creation of ‘Centres of Excellence in Seaweed Bioproducts Development’ at R&D institutions and academic institutions; integration of seaweed into national biofuel policy/ programme etc.

The long-term recommendations comprise of supporting clinical trials and commercial production of seaweed-based pharmaceuticals; supporting large scale commercial production of seaweed-based biomaterials and bio-energy etc. The recommendations in the study report could radically transform the seaweed sector and could aid in establishing sustainable seaweed value chains and a self-reliant seaweed industry in India.

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