Red seaweed is the raw material needed to produce carrageenan, a texturiser used in applications ranging from dairy and confectionery to nut-based milk alternatives. It is widely used for its gelling, thickening and stabilising properties. As a natural soluble fibre, in some applications the ingredient is able to aid the development of low sugar or fat alternatives.
Both farmed and wild red seaweed is harvested in coastal communities across Africa, parts of Asia and South America. This places its producers on the frontline of climate change. “For our red seaweed producers, climate change is increasingly becoming an issue for them,” Cargill sustainability expert James Ede told FoodNavigator.
“Rising sea levels are clearly a challenge for those communities. The rising temperature of the sea is also a problem because different species of red seaweed have adapted over millions of years to these coastal environments.”
For Cargill, then, promoting sustainability in its red seaweed supply is more than an extension of its CSR efforts – in some ways it is a business necessity. “It's very much a resilience piece that we're looking for in the face of climate change,” Ede explained.
First steps: Standards and mapping
According to Ede, Cargill is extending its drive towards sustainable red seaweed sourcing.
To date, Cargill's efforts to improve seaweed sustainability include financing research on red seaweed and farming specifically focusing on harvesting technologies to improve yields. In addition, Cargill has established programs on sharing best farming and harvesting practices and improved productions tools by supporting the purchase of new boats, drying, baling and cultivation infrastructure.
The company said it will source 60% of all its red seaweed sustainably six years from now. It has embarked on the process of mapping out and rating parts of its current supply chain for sustainability benchmarking purposes. This work, Ede said, is now being undertaken in partnership with a third-party non-profit organisation, Proforest.
“It's very much about launching our journey and our commitments on that journey with red seaweed,” he stressed.
Proforest is also involved in helping develop the standards and ambitions informing Cargill’s definition of sustainable red seaweed.
These focus on “empowering the seaweed produces themselves” by addressing the need for “training and coaching” to promote best practice. Within the seaweed producing communities, Cargill is also taking a stand on gender equality issues to “break down barriers” and “secure economic empowerment” for women within the community, Ede continued.
Ede said ultimately much of the work Cargill is undertaking focuses on promoting “better incomes and better living standards” alongside production methods that “do not have a detrimental impact on the marine environment”.
This effort is being taken in partnership with Cargill’s direct suppliers who are closer to the primary producing communities.
“We want to empower our suppliers and engage with [communities]. They know the producers very well, in terms of how they operate economically as well as in terms of knowledge transfer. In terms of what they do with the producer on the ground, it might be bringing in new techniques, [or] new practices.”
Complexity and traceability
Cargill’s red seaweed supply chain is multi-faceted involving many different actors in various regions around the world. This means that the company has to adopt a nuanced approach that takes into account varied conditions and challenges.
“All supply chains can look very different from the regions that we that we work in. Some can be shorter supply chains where we were with one supplier - a co-op based approach. Elsewhere we have trader based supply chains as well,” Ede revealed.
“This really highlights the challenges”, particularly when it comes to delivering one of Cargill’s key ambitions: improving traceability.
Here the company is optimistic about some of the high-tech solutions emerging today while also remaining pragmatic about how they would work in the context of producer communities.
“There are many opportunities out there. The digital environment brings many of those opportunities to us. We're scoping these out and what we're looking at now is a very much digital based option. But at the same time we need to be very simplistic. Solutions will range from phone based scanning apps to back to basic pen and paper approaches as well. A key part of our program is very much looking at what is best for that supply chain and on what is best for that region without having a top down approach.”