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Rethinking the Red Gold Rush

Overharvesting the popular gelatin alternative agar-agar puts the environment, and the harvesters, in peril.

Photo by Peter Southwood/Wikimedia Commons

In Morocco, where red seaweed is harvested off the coast of the port city of El Jadida, it is referred to as “red gold”—red seaweed is a 31-million-Euro industry in the North African country. The scarlet-hued algae are processed into agar-agar, a natural gelling agent used in drugs, cosmetics, and edibles like jelly candies. Demand for agar-agar, which is marketed as a plant-based alternative to gelatin, has risen dramatically in the past few years, and the natural commodity is becoming scarce.

Moroccan fishermen, finding it increasingly difficult to find and harvest red seaweed, have to dive deeper and deeper to find the precious commodity, exposing themselves to serious danger and participating in a downward spiral of environmental destruction. "In the 1990s and the 2000s, we used to collect as much as 500 kilos [1,100 pounds] of red algae a day. But the plant is disappearing," said one diver to the AFP.

Vegetarians, along with practicing Muslims and Jews, avoid foods with gelatin—marshmallows, jello, your favorite cereals—because gelatin is often (but not always) derived from pork and other animal by-products. Food manufacturers and professional cooks can use powder from the Moroccan seaweed as a thickening agent in place of gelatin, making it permissible to eat for people with these kinds of restrictions. Translucent, odorless, and flavorless, agar is particularly useful because it can be added to food without changing the flavor.

Photo by Fabio Achilli/Flickr

But the market for red seaweed has outgrown available resources: Red seaweed prices have soared as plant-based and vegetarian dietary habits become more globally popular. As divers rushed to meet new demand, the red seaweed became vulnerable to overharvesting. The situation became so dire in 2010 that the Moroccan government set quotas and price minimums to prevent exploitation of the local red seaweed supply.

But overharvesting is not the only problem. Sea pollution has also contributed to exhaustion of the red seaweed supply. Air and water pollution from El Jaded ports and factories have contaminated the local environment, making it difficult for any kind of life to thrive and prosper. Red seaweed are being strangled by pollution.

The situation has also been a disaster for the local ecosystem. Algae perform important functions for marine life: They filter seawater and provide shelter for small organisms. Red algae are particularly rich in minerals, so they provide tons of nutrients to other underwater marine life. (It can even be processed and packaged as vitamins for humans.) But if red seaweed is being overharvested, the supply can’t regenerate fast enough to carry out these functions.

What does this all mean for you, the consumer? You have a choice in the supermarket aisle and making an ethical decision may mean forgoing your favorite brand of agar-based jello mix for another alternative. People with kosher or halal diets might try fish-based kosher gelatins; vegetarians and vegans might find pectin, a plant-based gelling agent, a suitable option. Making these kinds of choices will hopefully help reduce demand for the “red gold” and give the seaweed crops some room to regenerate. The world is small, and getting smaller, and our smallest purchases may have adverse effects on ecosystems far removed from our own.

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