A New Leaf
Seaweed could be a miracle food—if we can figure out how to make it taste good.
Seaweed, which requires neither fresh water nor fertilizer, is one of the world’s most sustainable and nutritious crops. It absorbs dissolved nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon dioxide directly from the sea—its footprint is negative—and proliferates at a terrific rate. Smith’s kelp can grow as much as three-quarters of an inch a day, maturing from pinhead to ten-foot plant in the course of a winter, between hurricane seasons. It is resilient, built to take a lashing, but if a storm wipes out the crop he can just start over. Every year, he harvests between thirty and sixty tons of it, about the same per-acre yield as a potato farmer. Plentiful, healthy, and virtuous, kelp is the culinary equivalent of an electric car. “You’re not just gaining nutrition, you’re also gaining absolution from guilt,” Mark Bomford, the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, says. “This is your get-out-of-anxiety-free card.”
As industrial land-based agriculture becomes increasingly untenable—environmentally destructive and at the same time vulnerable to drought and changing weather—we are being pushed out to sea. Smith says, “The question is, Are we going to do it right or wrong?” He calls his system, which uses the entire water column, a “3-D farm,” and he would like to see it become the dominant form of aquaculture. He would like to see kelp—a potential source of human food, biofuel, and animal feed—supplant crops like corn and soy. In October, his farm design, which he has made open-source, won a prize given by the Buckminster Fuller Institute for innovative solutions to urgent global problems. Not long before that, he was honored by Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, where he showed up without realizing that he had a twelve-inch fillet knife in his backpack.
But Smith’s ambitions extend beyond reshaping an industry. In his vision, kelp farming can rehabilitate the ocean’s threatened ecosystems, mitigate the effects of climate change, and revive coastal economies. With thirty thousand dollars of start-up money and a boat, he figures, an out-of-work fisherman can make seventy thousand dollars a year. “There are no jobs on a dead planet,” he likes to say. Two years ago, he started GreenWave, a nonprofit through which he trains fishermen to be kelp farmers. Smith plans to form a twenty-five-farm co-operative revolving around a seafood hub near New Haven, with processing equipment, a seed bank and hatchery, value-added venders making kelp smoothies, and a Beyond Fish market, where the only fish available will be barramundi, fed on seaweed. In the often overwhelmingly grim conversation about ocean health—some scientists predict fishless oceans by 2050—Smith’s hopeful narrative is good for morale, promising that we can eat and thrive in an ever more populous and warming world. “It’s important to know that there’s a way to still sustainably work within the ocean,” May Boeve, the director of the climate-focussed advocacy group 350.org, says. “It’s not a lost cause.”
Read the full article: The New Yorker