• Saachi Jain

3D Ocean Farming: The Future of Farming is Here at Connecticut, USA

What if I told you that a farmer in Connecticut, USA, is growing crops that consume up to five times the amount of carbon that traditional farm plants consume? You’d probably question the possibility of such a prospect. Well, the key to success for Bren Smith, the first 3D Ocean Farmer to exist, is that he cultivates all his plants underwater.

After 15 years of exploring sustainable farming methods, Smith explains that, “We can say our oceans are a blank slate and we really have a chance to really build something new, and build something from the bottom up that's sustainable and restorative and doesn't make all the mistakes of industrial agriculture or aquaculture.”

What is 3D Ocean Farming, though?

3D Ocean Farming entails the growth of a mix of seaweed crops and shellfish (including mussels and oysters) under the water’s surface. This polyculture vertical farming is low impact, requires no fertilisers or feed, and is high yield. Harvest may take place from a duration ranging from just one day to upto two to three weeks.

If like me, your interest is piqued, but you just can’t picture a 3D ocean farm: fear not! It’s really straightforward. Hurricane-proof anchors and ropes are used at farm boundaries and on water surfaces respectively. From there, kelp is grown vertically downward, and next to them, scallops and other aquacrops are nurtured. On the bottom of the farm, oysters are generally cultivated in cages along with clams that are found in the mud.

How does it benefit the environment? And us?

Smith’s Thimble Island Ocean Farm pays special importance to biodiversity and works towards restoring ocean ecosystems and producing biofuel. The underwater crops and shellfish can take the form of nutritious food, natural fertiliser, substantial animal feed and even energy. This seems fishy, right (pun intended)? How can ocean farming solve all of the problems modern terrestrial agriculture faces?

While the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides causes salinity and depletes nutrients in the soil, kelp acts as a superfood that requires no input. Furthermore, no modern machines and irrigation systems are required as with land crops. Instead, this innovative method creates jobs and requires minimal acreage!

If you haven’t realised by now - this seemingly futuristic form of farming tackles climate change at its roots (another pun, I’m really on a roll). Its multifaceted uses help rebuild the reefs’ ecosystems and intake large amounts of carbon. In fact, at this moment, it is arguably the most sustainable means of food production on Earth.

Food insecurity is one of the biggest problems our planet faces today and instead of boring you with basic details of exponential human growth and lack of even distribution of food, I’d like you to consider the current COVID-19 pandemic we are witnessing. The risk of food shortages and price spikes at a country level is high and The United Nations World Food Programme has predicted that an estimated 265 million people could struggle with severe food insecurity by December 2020, up from 135 million people before the crisis, owing to income and remittance losses. Let that sink in (last pun, I promise).

Hence, by opening the doors to ocean farming, we are also welcoming a more food secure and stable world. Exploring this pioneering method could ensure the wellbeing of not just the environment, but also the human race.

This sounds great for Thimble Island… but who is willing to eat ocean veggies? Can kelp really become the new kale?

Contrary to popular belief, these seaweeds have been around for quite some time. They are a part of a traditional Asian diet; you must have come across them the last time you indulged in an appetising plate of sushi or a savoury bowl of ramen! In fact, there are more than 10,000 edible plants in the ocean that you are unaware of, including arugulas, spinaches and kales, that can be thrown onto almost any dish as a replacement for ‘land greens.’ For example, these versatile foods can be used in salads, or more interestingly, as pizza toppings or baked chips.

The challenge? In order to popularise these forms of seafood and create a larger market for ‘ocean veggies,’ chefs such as Brooks Headley of New York’s vegetarian Superiority Burger are currently enlisted by Smith to curate new delicious dishes that people will want to eat.

So, what is the future scope for other similar cities and the world at large?

Smith firmly believes that his Thimble Island farm could act as a blueprint for a new ocean economy and has made his model open-source. To assist prospective entrepreneurs, he founded the ‘GreenWave’ organisation.

Due to low initial costs, their unique approach of restorative ocean farming has already spread to other parts of North America along with other countries like India and Alaska. However, one of the biggest challenges to advancing 3D Ocean Farming lies in the difficult process of transforming fishermen into ocean farmers. Fishermen traditionally take pride in hunting fish and are reluctant to sacrifice what they consider the core of their profession.

Additionally, weather unpredictability creates a few issues for ocean farmers. During the winter and monsoon seasons, it may be dangerous to visit your farm due to strong winds, storms and hurricanes. These can not only damage crops, but also expensive gear! Over time, as ocean farmers gain a deeper understanding of their site and improve farming techniques, however, they can learn to modify and adjust their gear to be more resistant to these extreme weather conditions.

Greenwave Foundation, however, remains undeterred in their goal to spread pertinent information about how to begin a profession in this niche market. According to them, leasing and permitting processes are site and species dependent and hence vary by state. If you are starting from scratch, it may take upto 18 months to secure the necessary permits for your business plan, which can be a cumbersome process to go through. However, they guarantee their support during this tedious time.

Ultimately, the number of ocean farmers are still increasing in clusters and other cities are now recognising the many benefits of this revolutionary farming method. Whether this takes off or not, it is indisputable that 3D Ocean farming has the potential to reshape aquaculture as the world knows it today.

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