Gabriella D’Cruz is a scholar of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development whose radical reimagining of India’s seaweed farming industry has won her a prestigious international award from the BBC’s Food Chain programme.
Gabriella is reading for an MSc in Biodiversity Conservation & Management at Somerville, and has a long track record in marine conservation. Her latest project is making waves, however, because it has the potential to transform seaweed farming from a dangerous and poorly paid profession into one that can lift thousands out of poverty and protect our oceans.
If young people get on our side, seaweed farming could become a sustainable source of income and long-term saving that will insulate these small communities against the worst effects of climate change.
Seaweed has held a fascination for Gabriella since her childhood spent exploring the rockpools in her native Goa. The transformative moment, however, came after Gabriella met a group of women farming seaweed in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
As a marine conservationist, Gabriella already knew that seaweed forests are an essential ingredient in ocean biodiversity, offering a breeding ground for fish and shelter to many types of marine life, including turtles and cetaceans. She also knew that seaweed was not only a valuable food source, but a resource with untapped applications across everything from bioplastics and animal feed to cosmetics, given its molecular similarity to human skin and gut tissue.
But as Gabriella got to know these divers, she realised something else: they were doing a dangerous job, free-diving for seaweed using inadequate equipment. And yet, the value of the seaweed they harvested also gave them financial independence, a fact which translated directly into how they raised their children, invested in healthcare and were perceived within their villages.
As an academic observation, Gabriella saw this changed very little. It would only mean something if she could use that insight to create a viable model for farming the seaweed safely and sustainably that she could change lives on the ground as well as reshape the larger culture of extractive fishing and seaweed harvesting which is damaging the ocean.
Gabriella has opened our eyes to the huge potential of sustainably-produced food from the ocean, enabling us to fulfil the critical goal of producing more, with less.
Ismahane Elouafi, Chief Scientist of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization
Gabriella duly conceived a model for integrated seaweed and mussel farming on the west coast of India that she hopes small fishing communities will one day adopt. To test and demonstrate to others the viability of this model, Gabriella secured funding and hired divers for a six-month pilot scheme. The seaweed farms itself is essentially a raft or series of interconnected rafts with ropes hanging down into the water, each of which is seeded with mussels and seaweed. This simple yet ingenious mechanism offers two key advantages: one, you don’t have to damage natural seaweed beds; and, two, the farms can increase biodiversity by introducing new seaweeds and associated species into the local area.
Gabriella now has six months to see if this pilot will fulfil her dream of providing a regenerative model of farming that, unlike arable production, requires no fertilisers and puts more into the environment than it takes out.
The Global Youth Champion Award which Gabriella has won is hosted by BBC Radio 4’s Food and Farming Awards, with thousands of entries coming from around the world receiving the scrutiny of a panel of judged including anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe and Ismahane Elouafi, the Chief Scientist of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Speaking about the award, Ismahane Elouafi commented that, ‘Gabriella is young, bold and has done something different, moving from academic research to an on-the-ground project. It’s very rare that we turn our passion into action, creating something new. Gabriella has opened our eyes to the huge potential of sustainably-produced food from the ocean, enabling us to fulfil the critical goal of producing more, with less.’
Asked how she thinks her project might affect the prospects of people working in the fisheries sector in India, Gabriella commented that, ‘I hope this project will encourage young people in the fisheries sector, who are acutely aware of the instability caused by climate change, to consider this as a viable solution. My greatest hope is that, if young people get on our side, seaweed farming could become a sustainable source of income and long-term saving that will insulate these small communities against the worst effects of climate change and other financial instability.’