Now seaweed may not seem one of the most important things to look for in the middle of a war that was raging across almost the entire world, but it was important it was done and done as quickly as possible.The reason? Because it is from certain kinds of seaweed that agar is extracted. Agar is an important substance for medical work, such as making vaccines and it was agar that kept canned meat from going bad before it was opened and eaten.
The person whose task it was to search for the seaweed was a young botanist, Dr. Lucy Moore. Before World War Two New Zealand, like most other countries in the world, imported all of its agar from Japan. However when Japan entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany in 1941 and declared war on all the allies, including New Zealand, there was no more agar to be had from them.
Agar is a jelly like substance and, besides vaccines and meat canning, was also used in the finishing processes of leather making, as a base for jellies and ice-cream and as an ingredient in shoe stains, shaving soap, cosmetics and hand lotions. Agar is very similar to gelatine (used in some ice-cream and jellies) which is extracted from parts of slaughtered animals. Agar as you now know comes from seaweed and is in many ways a much better and more useful product than gelatine.
Gelatine cannot survive being boiled which is essential both in meat canning and in medical work in order to sterilise it of harmful bacteria. In hospitals special nutrient agars are used for growing bacteria and other micro-organisms so they can be studied and used in medicines.
So it was in 1941, at a time of great need in New Zealand and the world for a new agar supplies, that the country turned to Dr. Lucy Moore and her outstanding knowledge of New Zealand marine botany.
Lucy Moore was born in 1906 and died in 1987 aged 81. She grew up beside the sea in Warkworth, Northland and had always studied the plant life of the seashore, spending many hours examining the various swimming and scuttling inhabitants of rockpools as well as the plants of the shoreline. Her interest in plants grew and after high school she studied botany at Auckland University before getting a job in Wellington at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research's Botany division.
Lucy wrote many years later how the war "pitchforked me into an investigation of seaweeds, and into many adventures in exploring remote coastlines searching for, and finding agar-containing species in workable quantities." Her other love beside botany was tramping and that served her well as she began her many trips in search of the right seaweed.
Lucy Moore combined her understanding of New Zealand seaweeds, and her large knowledge of the world's scientific writing on seaweeds and successfully found a species she thought would be likely to produce good yields of agar.
The seaweed she found, Pterocladia lucida, is especially abundant around the Bay of Plenty and East Coast of the North Island. The seaweed is fernlike in shape, and very tough and rubbery. When it grows close to the low tide mark on rocks it is a red colour but fades to yellow and then white when it is found growing higher up and exposed to more bleaching sunshine.
Having found the seaweed the problem became how to collect enough of it. Extracting the agar from the seaweed is quite simple, the seaweed is slowly boiled for a long time until it becomes a `soup like' mixture. Next the solid bits that are left are strained off and what is left behind is a jelly like substance which is then frozen so the agar separates out and is ready for use.
It was also Lucy who came up with the solution for collecting the seaweed. Children at the local schools, especially the Maori schools, could collect it and earn pocket money.The idea worked and spread and not only did entire schools organise collecting trips to raise money but as one farming newspaper from 1941, the New Zealand Dairy Exporter, explains, everyone was encouraged to collect: "Wives and children of farmers living close to the these sea beaches (where the seaweed grew) are earning a little pocket money by selling the weed or are clubbing together to collect for war funds. Other parts of the coast - perhaps equally good - may not have been investigated. If you have on your beach a good bed of weed that fits the description given, send a small dry sample to Miss Moore for verification." Seaweed drying on farm fences became a common sight and with a little helpful propaganda from the School Journal the seaweed began rolling in, sometimes pressed in wool bales, sometimes in sacks and sometimes pressed and baled in hay-balers.
By 1949 about 100 tons of dry weed was being collected every year by people scouring the beach or plucking it from the sea.
During the war, seaweed was processed to supply not only New Zealand but also British and Allied needs with over 100 tons of it being exported. And as an icing on the cake, when the New Zealand agar was tested it was found to be better in almost every respect to the Japanese agar!
The wartime agar project resulted in a small but significant agar industry being developed in New Zealand by Davis Gelatine, in Christchurch, which commenced production in July 1943 and continued until the 1970s. A large proportion of the agar was exported overseas during this time.
Coast Biologicals of Auckland with a factory in Opotiki, Bay of Plenty, now produce a high quality agar for scientific work, though agar is not now produced in New Zealand for meat canning. Coast Biologicals process about 200 tonnes of the dry seaweed into agar each year. Most of this seaweed is harvested from the South Wairarapa coast, dried and then put in bales before being transported to Opotiki. It takes about 100 kilograms of dry seaweed to make 25 kilograms of agar and agar fetches about $50 a kilogram on world markets.
DR Moore continued on in botany for the rest of her life, becoming one of New Zealand's most distinguished botanists, and is remembered as a pioneer both in her work and for women scientists who followed. Furthermore, her work to find agar in New Zealand, is likely to continue to be useful to New Zealand as it cannot be artificially made and there is no real substitute for it in medical work.
Other places you might not expect to find agar, but it is present, are in the middle of Cadbury's soft centre chocolates and in DNA fingerprinting technology where an agar based product is used in the separation of gene fragments.