Use as human food crop
Duckweed is eaten by humans in some parts of Southeast Asia. It contains more protein than soybeans, so sometimes it is cited as a significant potential food source.
Some initial investigations to what extent duckweed could be introduced in European markets show little consumer objection to the idea. NASA’s Caves of Mars Project identified duckweed as a top candidate for growing food on Mars.
A start-up, microTERRA, based in Mexico has attempted to use duckweed as clean water in privately owned aquaculture farms. The plants use nitrogen and phosphorus produced from fish waste as fertilizer, while simultaneously cleaning the water as it grows. The water can then be reused by the aquaculture farmers, and the duckweed, which has a 35-42% protein content, can be harvested as a source of sustainable protein.
Filtration of contaminants and nutrients
The plants can provide nitrate removal, if cropped, and the duckweeds are important in the process of bioremediation because they grow rapidly, absorbing excess mineral nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphates. For these reasons, they are touted as water purifiers of untapped value.
The Swiss Department of Water and Sanitation in Developing Countries, associated with the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology, asserts that as well as the food and agricultural values, duckweed also may be used for wastewater treatment to capture toxins and for odor control, and that if a mat of duckweed is maintained during harvesting for removal of the toxins captured thereby, it prevents the development of algae and controls the breeding of mosquitoes. The same publication provides an extensive list of references for many duckweed-related topics.
These plants also may play a role in conservation of water because a cover of duckweed will reduce evaporation of water when compared to the rate of a similarly sized water body with a clear surface.
Duckweed also functions as a bioremediator by effectively filtering contaminants such as bacteria, nitrogen, phosphates, and other nutrients from naturally occurring bodies of water, constructed wetlands, and wastewater.
Duckweed in natural environments
One of the more important factors influencing the distribution of wetland plants, and aquatic plants in particular, is nutrient availability. Duckweeds tend to be associated with fertile, even eutrophic conditions. They can be spread by waterfowl and small mammals, transported inadvertently on their feet and bodies, as well as by moving water. In water bodies with constant currents or overflow, the plants are carried down the water channels and do not proliferate greatly. In some locations, a cyclical pattern driven by weather patterns exists in which the plants proliferate greatly during low water-flow periods, then are carried away as rainy periods ensue.
Duckweed is an important high-protein food source for waterfowl. The tiny plants provide cover for fry of many aquatic species. The plants are used as shelter by pond-water species such as bullfrogs and fish such as bluegills. They also provide shade and, although frequently confused with them, can reduce certain light-generated growths of photoautotrophic algae.