El Jadida on Morocco's Atlantic coast is one of those cities that tourists only spend a few hours in. The remnants of the Portuguese architecture are all it seems to offer, and the Manueline cistern of the El Jadida fortress is certainly worth a visit. However, there is more to the city, and, as we discovered, a little known industry in red seaweed.
With around 150,000 inhabitants, El Jadida, which translates roughly as "new life", exports beans, almonds, maize, chickpeas, wool, hides, wax and eggs. But down on the beaches and beneath its coastal waters the gathering of red seaweed is an industry worth taking note of. With an annual harvest of around 14,000 tons a year, Morocco is one of the world's biggest producers of the seaweed that is used to produce agar.
Agar is gelatinous, odourless, tasteless, colorless, and transparent substance which because of its properties has many interesting uses. Because agar is indigestible by practically all bacteria, it is an excellent base on which to grow laboratory bacterial cultures. The bacteria consume the substance in which they are grown but not the agar. German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered this in the 1880’s.
And because agar is also indigestible by humans, it is now a common ingredient of packaged diet foods. Agar fills the stomach without adding calories!
In Japan, agar is put into sauces, soups, jellies, and desserts. In the West, it is used as a gelling and stabilizing agent by meat and fish canneries, and in baked goods, dairy products, and candies as well.
An extremely useful medicinal asset of agar is that it is hydrophilic, which means it absorbs water. So it is effective as a bulk laxative. It soaks up the water in the intestines and increases the bulk of waste material. And because of its water-absorbent capacity, agar is also used by dentists, and is manufactured into emulsions, lubricants, suppositories, and cosmetic gels.
Between between July and September each year local women gather the red algae off the beaches and divers go down some 15 metres to harvest it. Unfortunately, excessive gathering and local pollution has taken its toll and caused a depletion in red seaweed populations. The pollution on the beaches of El Jadida is due to the presence of local factories and nearby industrial ports.
Until very recently it was considered too difficult to farm the red seawweed, but now, if the pollution problems could be overcome, there may be a way of revive these populations or farm red seaweed for mass consumption.
Lead by an expert in marine agronomy from the University of Arizona, a team of scientists has been able to plant and harvest entire crops of red seaweed, making them available to commercial purchasers. It's a notable success story, not only because it could revive the industry for the locals, but more importantly because it results in the availability of a dietary supplement that offers extraordinary healing properties and the ability to both prevent and reverse serious diseases.