Nature

Benefits Of Eating Seaweed

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“Call us not weeds, we are flowers of the sea.” – E.L. Aveline, from The Mother’s Fables.

The quote is one of Dr. T.L. “Tee” Senn’s favorites. For, like Aveline, he dislikes the word seaweed for the plant he has studied for much of his life.

“If we didn’t call it seaweed, we’d be better off,” says Senn, who thinks the terminology makes it difficult for some farmers to accept products extracted from seaweed. Senn is quick to advise that seaweed extract is no snake oil. He has spent 40 years developing products from seaweed and has a list of credentials and awards that run over several typewritten pages, including his recent appointment as head professor emeritus for the Department of Agriculture at Clemson University.

The result of his life’s endeavor are products that have been proven to increase plant yield. In a recent test on peanuts at the University of Georgia, production increased by 20 percent when treated properly with a combination of seaweed extract and humic substances. While the jump from the son of a South Carolina dairy farmer to international seaweed specialist seems huge, it actually was a natural progression of Senn’s life.

Although he wanted to be a medical doctor, he was lucky during the Depression to get a dairy scholarship to Clemson University. When he arrived, however, he found the scholarship had been given to another student and was offered a horticulture scholarship instead. Desperate, he accepted, and went on to study plant disease and, later, biophysics. “I became fascinated with the relationship between plants and people and how similar they are,” he recalls.

Like most men of his generation, he was soon serving in the South Pacific and went to work in Naval Intelligence in Korea. It was during his military service that he was introduced to seaweed, a valued product in the far east.

Senn remembered and, later, secured a grant to study seaweed. He soon learned that the plants produced a type of sugar, different but similar to land plants.

Then, “I found out there was a lot more than sugar,” he says. He went on to isolate other indos – hormones and precursors to hormones – that could be used to instigate growth in other plants when applied in the proper dosage and at high-stress times in a plant’s development. In addition to proper timing, dosage is important, he says. And when it comes to seaweed extracts, a little goes a long way.

“Most farmers still think you have to use four tons per acre – but we’re not talking fertilizer,” he says, adding that the extracted powder is typically mixed by part per million or even billion.

Because of the potency, Senn says the price is very reasonable because of the increased productivity. While he doesn’t have estimates to offer on costs, he is associated with Maxicrop USA of Arlington Heights, Ill., which is one of several companies that market seaweed formula containing seaweed extracts. The extracts can make significant differences in plant production, “healthy plants make healthy products,” he says, but they are not intended to replace fertilizer, though they can decrease the amount of fertilizer needed.

To maximize the results, Senn suggests combining seaweed extract with humate substances – humic, fulvic and ulmic acids. The combination provides a buffering agent over a wide range of pH. But to be most effective, the humate – formed from plant and animal remains over millions of years – should be of high quality and aged. Senn recommends that it should be taken from coal and crude oil mining operations in Utah because it is older and more potent than some sold from less-aged lands like Florida.

Seaweed’s uses extend even beyond product stimulation. One study shows that aphids and sucking insects tend to stay away from plants treated with it.

Even beyond agriculture, seaweed products are used in toothpaste, ice cream, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, he says.

All these were developed by people like Senn, who was once described by a co-worker at Clemson as a “founder of horticultural therapy.”

“And we didn’t even have a computer,” he laughs. “We had good pencils though.”