Famous Spanish chef is on a mission to recast abundant eelgrass as a potential superfood that could have far-reaching consequences.
Growing up near the Bay of Cádiz, where he often swam, Ángel León paid little attention to the meadows of seagrass that fringed the bay. It was only years later – as he was establishing his reputation as one of Spain’s most innovative chefs – that he noticed something he hadn't spotted in previous encounters with Zostera marina: a clutch of tiny green grains clinging to the base of the eelgrass.
Curiosity prompted him to organise lab tests. This hinted at tremendous potential: gluten-free, high in omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, and contains 50 percent more protein than rice per grain, according to the results. And all of it growing naturally, without freshwater or fertiliser.
“In a world that is three-quarters water, it could fundamentally transform how we see oceans,” says León. “This could be the beginning of a new concept of understanding the sea as a garden.”
After stumbling across the grain in 2017, León began looking for any mention of Zostera marina being used as food. He finally found an article from 1973 in the journal Science on how it was an important part of the diet of the Seri, an Indigenous people living on the Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico, and the only known case of a grain from the sea being used as a human food source. Like the Seri, León bagan experimenting with recipe ideas for the grains. “It’s interesting. When you eat it with the husk, similar to brown rice, it has a hint of the sea at the end,” León told The Guardian. “But without the husk, you don’t taste the sea.” He found that the grain absorbed flavour well, taking two minutes longer to cook than rice and softening if overcooked.
Working with a team at the University of Cádiz and researchers from the regional government, a pilot project was launched on a third of a hectare (0.75 acres) of salt marshes into what León calls a “marine garden”.
In this garden, they observed the plant living up to its beneficial reputation for ecosystems, as the eelgrass transformed the abandoned salt marsh into a flourishing habitat teeming with life, from seahorses to scallops.
The plant’s impact could stretch much further. Capable of capturing carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and described by the WWF as an “incredible tool” in fighting the climate crisis, seagrass absorbs 10 percent of the ocean’s carbon annually despite covering just 0.2 percent of the seabed.
The team’s first marine garden suggests potential average harvests could be about 3.5 tonnes a hectare. While the yield is about a third of what one could achieve with rice, León points to the potential for low-cost and environmentally friendly cultivation. “If nature gifts you with 3,500kg without doing anything – no antibiotics, no fertiliser, just seawater and movement – then we have a project that suggests one can cultivate marine grain.”
León and his team envision a worldwide reach for similar marine gardens, paving the way for people to harness the plant’s potential to boost aquatic ecosystems, feed populations and fight the climate crisis. “We’ve opened a window,” says León. “I believe it’s a new way to feed ourselves.”
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