Medicines, makeup, and more to discover
Imagine a natural resource with proven health benefits, inside and outside the body, growing in abundance in the wild, easily cultivated - though little understood.
Consider a commonplace raw material with enormous untapped potential where Indonesia leads the world in exports - yet lags in knowledge.
Turning around this situation is the goal of Dr Noer Kasanah (right) and her colleagues in the Fisheries Department at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University. With the help of a New Zealand aid program they’re working to reveal the hidden curative powers and other qualities of seaweeds.
“About 780 varieties have been identified, though there could be more,” said Dr Noer, who originally trained as a pharmacist. “However only 56 are currently known to be commercially viable.
“The red variety (at least 450 types), which grows furthest from the shore is the most economically important, but until our research is complete we won’t know if there are others that could yield valuable compounds.
“Indonesia is a mega-diversity country with huge potential. Who knows what we can find and the applications waiting to be uncovered?
“Most discoveries into the properties of seaweeds have come from overseas. I’m not happy about that, particularly as we are such a major producer.”
Seaweeds are already used in slimming pills (they work by tricking the body into thinking the stomach is full) and wound dressings. They’re the source of iodine, which is found in a wide range of medicines and is vital for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland.
The applications don’t stop with drugs. Seaweeds are part of the diet in many cultures. They are also used in cosmetics and fertilizers.
However the major commercial uses are in medicines – including anti-bacterial compounds, make-up and food additives. Agar, which is extracted from seaweed, is widely used in foods. If you ate a jelly, sampled sushi or drank a soup today, chances are that your snack included elements of seaweed.
Seaweeds are already a useful earner. Four years ago just three million tonnes were exported; this year the prediction is ten million, making Indonesia the world’s top producer. Most of the weed goes to Europe.
If the quality is improved and further processing undertaken then incomes could be even higher and jobs kept in the Republic. Seaweed, particularly the red variety (the others are brown and green), has long been harvested in villages on Java’s south coast and islands in Nusa Tenggara. (See sidebar)
Requirements include an accessible beach, few hazards like rocky outcrops and low wave movements – the opposite to a surfer’s dream.
British naturalist Alfred Wallace was among the first to research the archipelago’s seaweeds – a misnomer because they’re really marine algae. That was in the 19th century. A few Dutch biologists added to the knowledge, but little has been done till now.
“We’re concentrating on East Nusa Tenggara because it’s a poor and undeveloped area,” said the US trained Dr Noer. “It’s also part of the weed-rich Coral Triangle. (The base is Indonesia, the apex the Philippines and the sides Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.)
Working in her laboratory with staff and students, and using a three-year NZ government grant paying Rp 600 million (US$53,000) a year, Dr Noer’s team has started mapping the biodiversity, collecting seaweeds from the south coast near Yogyakarta for laboratory analysis.
At this stage Dr Noer thinks the greatest promise lies in antioxidants for human health, and antibacterial agents in aquaculture.
In her submission for funds Dr Noer stressed the importance of the research having practical commercial outcomes that can be applied in remote areas where low-tech rules.
Inventing a splendid process that relies on stable power, sterile workrooms and white-coated technicians may not be the way to go on rugged islands overlooked by Jakarta resource allocators.
Although some species are toxic (“the deeper the weed, the more potent the poison,” commented Dr Noer), seaweeds have featured in the foods of Japanese and Koreans for centuries.
Above all seaweed fits marvellously into the current global political agenda: It’s plentiful, organic and sustainable. It doesn’t always need to be harvested from the wild. When cultivated – and it’s a rapid grower - controls can be exercised. Some areas produce year round – others only during the wet season.
Although half the population might question the need for make-up it’s hard to argue against harvesting a natural product that feeds and cures and even helps clean teeth.
Buyers usually want weed that’s been dried to below 38 per cent of its original weight. Simple processes, like washing the weed of salt and sand, keeping it free of contaminants like ropes and chicken droppings, and being more selective, can help improve products and prices.
Weeding out the problems
The difficulties facing social engineers trying to introduce new ways of working were obvious at the aptly-named village of Sauna on the coast of Penida Island south east of Bali,
In the shade of a giant sea almond tree on a coral beach 18 women and girls, some of primary school age, slowly plucked seaweed shoots off plastic rope.
Men brought them baskets of weed, harvested from an off-shore nursery where they’d been planted a month earlier. The shoots were then carted further up the beach and sun dried on plastic sheets. If it starts raining the weed has to be covered quickly. All the procedures are labor intensive
It takes about five kilos of wet weed to make one kilo of dried product.
The top quality weed fetches Rp 16,000 (US$ 1.40) a kilogram. Other weeds get less than half that price.
An earlier attempt by a community agency to cut-out the middle men and deal directly with exporters was countered by a sudden surge in prices that the agency couldn’t match. When they gave up, the price tumbled.
The people see no urgency to change. “If you want me to work harder I need more money,” said Suwarto, 60. (right)
The women had only vague ideas of why the weed is wanted overseas and the end products. “We just plant, grow, harvest and dry,” they said. “After that it’s not our business.”
First published in The Jakarta Post, 16 April 2014.