How Seaweed Really Can (Kelp) Save The World.

We are what we Eat – and that’s why we’re Fucked! (But Kelp can Help)

I don’t think it’s news to anyone these days that our planet is in trouble, and that one of the reasons we find ourselves in such a mess has to do with the way we eat. How we choose to farm our food, how we process it, package it, transport it, and what it is we actually choose to eat has a massive effect on the world around us, for good or for bad, and lately we’ve been putting all our red-meat-wrapped, methane-soaked, factory-farmed, chemical-ridden, anti-nutritional eggs in the bad basket. Well if a quite brilliant man named Bren Smith has anything to do with it, the good basket might soon be gaining some weight, and he’s going to fill it with seaweed!   

Bren Smith is a fisherman turned ‘restorative ocean farmer’, and quite honestly is such an inspirational figure I wanted to just write this article about his unrivalled suitability for the role of ‘president of the world’, but I think he would agree that it’s more important to talk about what he, and many like him, are trying to create; a food system that works for everyone, including the planet. 

How we choose to farm our food, how we process it, package it, transport it, and what it is we actually choose to eat has a massive effect on the world around us, for good or for bad.

At the age of just 14 years old, Mr. Smith left school to become a fisherman, and spent over 20 years working within the industrialised fishing economy, ‘tearing up entire ecosystems’ in ‘one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet’. When the cod stocks crashed in the 90’s, thousands of fisherman were thrown out of work, and Mr. Smith knew that something had to change.

Today, he has envisioned exactly what that change needs to look like, and is leading the push to make it a widespread reality. As an alternative to plundering the oceans and polluting the skies in search of ever-dwindling fish stocks, Mr. Smith has designed a method of ‘3D Ocean Farming’ which involves growing kelp and high-value shellfish in a way that actually improves the health of the oceans. Not only that, he has set up a not-for-profit called GreenWave that aims to help others become 3D Ocean Farmers by giving the designs away for free, as well as providing all sorts of other financial and educational support. Pretty amazing stuff, but I did say that I wasn’t going to write this post as a stars-in-my-eyes tribute to the magnificence of Mr. Smith, so I think it’s time we talked about kelp.

What’s so Great about Kelp?

Kelp can sequester up to 20 times more CO2 per acre than forests.

Kelp is a type of seaweed, or ‘macroalgae’, and has a whole load of benefits. Not only is it an extremely nutritional food, it also helps de-acidify the oceans, can sequester up to 20 times more CO2 per acre than forests, and can be used as organic fertiliser, animal feed, biofuel, and a number of other wonderful things. Sounds tremendous right? But what’s the catch? You know what? There is no catch. Just more details below about how great it is!

Great for the Planet 

Kelp draws in so much CO2 from the water around it that it actually helps de-acidify the ocean, which provides an ideal environment for shell growth, which in turn help to clean the water as well. I don’t think there’s any need to elaborate on why sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and cleaning up the oceans is an essential thing for the future of the planet, and since Kelp seems to do these things so effectively, I think it’s very reasonable to start yelling from the rooftops: ‘All hail master kelp! All hail master kelp! We need seaweed we need seaweed to grow and save the planet’s health! 

Great for the Health

Kelp is good for you. Very good for you. It is packed full of calcium, copper, iodide and iron, and is also rich in protein, fibre, and vitamins, while being low in calories and fat. Sounds pretty ideal. It is thought to help lower blood pressure, promote heart health, assist the body in fighting illness and disease, and ultimately lead to increased life-expectancy. Sounds like it could be worth our while munching down the odd seaweed salad or two. 

Other Uses and Benefits 

Kelp and other seaweed’s can be used as natural fertilisers so beautiful fruit and veg like this can be grown without the use of artificial chemical poison.

Kelp seems to dramatically improve the health of everything it touches, and it’s possible uses stretch far beyond just super-nutritious food and saving the oceans. Here are some of the main ones. 

  • It works well as a natural fertiliser, improving soil quality while negating the need to use pollution heavy industrial fertilisers.
  • It can be used as animal feed, and it has even been reported that ingestion of kelp can significantly reduce the amount of methane produced by cows. (Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas; so kelp-fed farts are happier farts! 
  • Kelp can be used as a biofuel, and may have the potential to one day replace fossil fuels! 
  • Another huge advantage of kelp is the speed at which it grows; at rates more than 30 times that of land-plants, making it a super-efficient option. 

So it’s pretty damn clear that kelp, can help! In a number of incredible ways. But it’s not just kelp we’re talking about here, it’s the innovative method of ocean farming designed by our main man Bren Smith that might really help to save the world. So what exactly is 3D Ocean Farming? Well we’re about to find out.

3D Ocean Farming

3D Ocean Farming is a restorative method of ocean farming where seaweed (kelp) and mussels grow in the water on vertical floating ropes, with oysters and clam cages underneath. By de-acidifying the water around it, the kelp creates the ideal conditions for the cultivation of the shellfish, which in turn help to further clean the water. This is all done in a vertical design that utilises the entire depth of the water, so maximum produce can be farmed from a significantly smaller area. Where as most agricultural systems are often quite resource-intensive, and can damage the environment through use of fertilisers and pesticides, 3D Ocean Farming requires very few resources, and actually restores environmental health. You can see in the image below how it might work. 

A groovy illustration of how a 3D Ocean Farm might look.

The Benefits of 3D Ocean Farming 

According to GreenWave, the not-for-profit founded by Bren Smith that is working to help grow and improve 3D Ocean Farming around the world, farming roughly 5% of US waters could achieve the following: 

  • Produce the protein equivalent to 3 trillion cheeseburgers. (That’s a whole lotta beef!)
  • Sequester 135 million tonnes of Carbon and 10 million tonnes of Nitrogen a year.
  • Reduce the methane output from cattle by over 58%.
  • Create 50 million new jobs.

3D Ocean Farms can also serve as storm-surge protectors, artificial reefs that attract more than 150 species of aquatic life, and they require absolutely no fresh water, fertilisers, pesticides, or feed, adding to the already monumental list of environmental and economic benefits of growing food this way. Referring to his move from traditional farming methods to 3D Ocean Farming in a wonderful article he wrote on Medium, Mr. Smith states that his farm ‘used to be 100 acres; now it’s down to 20 acres, but it produces much more food than before.’

So 3D Ocean Farming really does seem like a great idea both economically and environmentally, and the good news is, it is growing in all the right ways. 

3D Ocean Farms require absolutely no fresh water, fertilisers, pesticides, or feed, adding to the already monumental list of environmental and economic benefits of growing food this way.

A New Economy 

Okay so I know we’re not talking about tomatoes here, or maybe we are talking about tomatoes? I just don’t know anymore. Either way, I chose this photo to illustrate the act of sharing, which is exactly what Bren Smith did with his 3D Ocean Farming design. Sharing is an essential ingredient of the community-driven ‘new-economy’. (I also chose the photo because I fugging love tomatoes!)

As I mentioned earlier, although Mr. Smith is responsible for designing this innovative method of farming, instead of opting to patent or franchise it, he decided to make the design available to others for free. He set up a not-for-profit called GreenWave which is dedicated to helping other people start their own farms, using his design! This is such a refreshing break from the usual capitalistic tendency to maximise personal profit above all else. In that same article he wrote on Medium, Mr. Smith repeatedly talks about ‘the old economy’ and how it is ‘built on the arrogance of growth at all costs, profiting from pollution, and the refusal to share economic gains with 99 percent of (people.) Rejecting the principles of this old economy, it is through ‘new-economy’ principles of collaboration, community-driven innovation, shared profits, and meeting social needs that GreenWave is helping to proliferate the 3D Ocean Farming revolution. 

GreenWave guarantee to purchase 80 percent of all farmers crops for the first five years at triple the market rate.

They have open-sourced the farming model so that ‘anybody with 20 acres and a boat and $30,000 can start his or her own farm.’ That may sound like a lot, but it would be a whole lot more if Mr. Smith had decided to patent the design instead of sharing it. GreenWave also provide all new farmers with startup grants, access to free seed, gear donated by Patagonia, two years of free consulting, and most incredibly, they guarantee to purchase 80 percent of all farmers crops for the first five years at triple the market rate.

Now I’ve never bolded something in the middle of a blog post before, but I just find that last bit absolutely astonishing, and entirely worthy of a good bolding! One of the biggest factors that’s likely to deter new farmers from joining this planet-saving aquacultural revolution is likely to be the fear of economic struggle or failure, and GreenWave have absolutely unanimously incredibly mitigated that fear by virtually guaranteeing all new farmers economic stability for the first five years of their venture. I mean that really is something. 

So it’s clear that 3D Ocean Farming and the absolute Goddess of the ocean that is kelp can have a big part to play in solving the climate crisis, and could also play a significant role in ushering in the circular economy. (A fascinating economic system of the future that you can read more about in this blog post.) It’s also clear that a whole lot is being done to ensure that 3D Ocean Farming becomes a popular and profitable farming method, for the people, and not just for the big bad corporations. So what could possibly be stopping it from instant global domination? Well, more than anything, it’s that same old pesky pest that just loves itself a bit of planet bashing trouble……. Us.

Help Kelp to Help Us

If we want to harness the full potential of kelp’s planet-saving capabilities, we have to start eating the flipping stuff. It may not be a big juicy steak, but this does look at least a little delicious?

As I’ve already mentioned a tremendous number of times in this article, the benefits of kelp float (haha) far beyond just providing us with a nutritious meal, but we do still need to start eating the stuff if we want to increase it’s production. More demand for kelp equals more 3D Ocean Farms, equals more kelp in the water, equals less CO2 in the environment and acid in the seas. The biggest immediate increase in demand for kelp can be created by choosing to eat it, and that’s where the main problem might lie; will people really be willing to swap the sweet big mac’s for the seaweed snacks??

Your guess is as good as mine on that one. Mr. Smith suggests that ‘as the price of fertilizer, water, and feed goes up, zero-input food (such as 3D Ocean Farmed Kelp) is going to be the most affordable food on the planet. The economics of it will drive us to eat ocean greens.’

So maybe the supply is destined to create the demand in this case, as opposed to the other way around, but either way, adding the odd seaweed sandwich or two to our diets certainly won’t do our chances of saving the planet any harm.

About the Author

Adam Millett is a freelance writer for hire with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help businesses tell their sustainability stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.

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