The Great Agar Crisis of 2015

This doesn’t bode well (boldface mine):

Microbiology’s most important reagent is in short supply, with potential consequences for research, public health and clinical labs around the world.

Agar — the seaweed-derived, gelatinous substance that biologists use to culture microbes — is experiencing a global downturn, marine biologists, agar producers and industry analysts told Nature. “There’s not enough seaweed for everyone, so basically we are now reducing our production,” says Pedro Sanchez, deputy managing director of Industrias Roko in Polígono de Silvota, Spain, which processes seaweed to make some 40% of the world’s agar…

One major supplier, Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Massachusetts, says that it has stopped selling two ‘raw’ agar products — agar that has not been mixed with other ingredients — until 2016, so that it can prioritize more-popular products that contain a mixture of agar and growth nutrients. The company reports that about 200 of its customers have been affected. Another major lab-supply company, Millipore Sigma in Billerica, Massachusetts, has also halted sales of raw agar, and it says that it will re-evaluate its supplies early next year.

Millipore Sigma blames the shortage on competition from food companies for purified agar. The global demand from food-makers, at several thousand tonnes annually, dwarfs the 900 tonnes that go to lab-supply companies.

A well-intentioned but misguided conservation policy combined with possible cronyism seems partly at fault (boldface mine):

But citing concerns over dwindling Gelidium populations, the Moroccan government cut the legal annual harvest to around 6,000 tonnes, and has limited foreign exports of the algae to around 1,200 tonnes. Although the changes were imposed in 2010, the country only began to enforce these trade limits last year, says Sanchez.

There is evidence, says marine ecologist Ricardo Melo at the University of Lisbon, that Moroccan Gelidium stocks were being overharvested by throngs of beach-combers in search of ‘red gold’, as the seaweed is known. But Melo says that the trade restrictions make little sense from a conservation point of view.

The domestic Moroccan market is now flooded with Gelidium, while the rest of the world struggles with a massive shortage. This has benefited Morocco’s lone agar producer, which can now buy the seaweed at rock-bottom prices, but the move has vastly increased the cost for producers elsewhere.

Sure, this isn’t a global-warming level of crisis, but we really do need agar for microbiology–including public health microbiology. I don’t know of any country where public health microbiology budgets are increasing. This is really not helping.

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1 Response to The Great Agar Crisis of 2015

  1. Jonathan Silverman says:

    Sounds like this would be a good time to start an Agar production company in Morocco.

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