Could Irish seaweed help us reduce the use of pesticides – and keep fruits fresh longer?



Eithne Browne

Posted: 20 June, 2018

The strawberry ripening process

Eithne Browne is a postgraduate scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway under the Irish Research Council’s Enterprise Partnership Scheme. She joins us today to discuss her research as part of our #LoveIrishResearch theme for June, ‘Plants and Botany’.

Without plants, where would we be? The short answer is — we wouldn’t be! Plants make the oxygen we need to breathe and thrive. In botany and plant science we study plants and how they have evolved over millions of years to be incredibly diverse and a rich source of food, medicines, textiles and fuel. Some researchers, like myself, study plants both from the sea and land, exploring how they can help us live healthier, more sustainable lives.

At times, it feels as though our world is growing without limits. The United Nations have predicted that the planet’s population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050. The most pressing issue for many plant scientists is that of food security — how can we feed almost 10 billion people while ensuring we cause the least amount of damage to our planet?

Climate change is causing progressively warmer summers and wetter winters in Ireland. This does not suit our crops, and results in an increase in plant diseases that can cause massive economic losses for farmers. Farmers and commercial fruit growers have no other option but to rely on chemical pesticides to stop mould or insect pests and allow plants to grow healthily.

However, some pesticides have damaging effects on pollinators such as bees. Bees are responsible for pollinating many of our food crops, so a decline in bee health can be very dangerous for food security. More than ever we must make food production more sustainable and less impactful on our planet — but how?

My research investigates the potential of natural compounds from Irish seaweeds to reduce the effects of mould on plants. Seaweed has been used by farmers for hundreds of years as fertiliser, animal feed and to increase crop growth. Seaweeds have many health benefits, both for humans and plants. Many of those who grew up on the coastal regions of Ireland remember being given carrageenan moss as a remedy for sore throats, and the salty taste of dulse, eaten as a snack full of nutritious compounds.

In my research I extract compounds from seaweeds, make them into a powder, and analyse its ability to reduce the growth of mould on strawberry plants both before and after the fruit is picked. Part of my project also looks into whether this seaweed powder can make the strawberry plants healthier and more disease resistant without compromising the taste, smell or colour of the fruits. I find this research exciting as it uses one of our greatest resources, our native seaweed, to potentially reduce the use of pesticides in Ireland. Research in botany and the collaboration between industry, scientists and farmers ensures that we keep our plants healthy and productive for our growing population without costing the earth.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.