Kelp and the hunger crisis: cultivating a food-secure future

It’s estimated that the global population will reach 10 billion by 2050, and the need for sustainable and innovative solutions to meet the rising demand for food has never been more pressing. Traditional agricultural practices on land are already strained, facing challenges such as climate change, soil degradation, and water scarcity. To address this impending crisis, humans must turn their attention to cultivating the vast and largely untapped resource that covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface—the ocean. But we can’t approach oceanic cultivation in the same way we have approached it on land. To continue with the same hunter-gatherer methodology that has caused near ecological collapse in parts of the world would be short-sighted, and would land us with the same – if not worse – problems further down the line. It’s crucial that we take a regenerative approach to ocean cultivation – that is to say, we put as much effort into replenishing what we take from the ocean as we do into taking it in the first place. Regenerative seaweed farming is a big part of this – as the world’s fastest growing crop, it offers huge potential in solving the world’s hunger crisis. However, as with all complex problems, the answer is not straightforward. In this blog post we’ll explore some of the problems and solutions surrounding this thorny topic.

Challenges of land-based agriculture

Before delving into the prospects of ocean cultivation, it is crucial to understand the limitations and challenges associated with traditional land-based agriculture. Climate change is causing unpredictable weather patterns, leading to droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures that jeopardise crop yields. Moreover, excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has led to soil degradation and water pollution, impacting the long-term sustainability of agriculture. Huge demand has led to vast areas – almost 50% of all the world’s agricultural land – given over to just four crops: soy, rice, wheat, and corn. Thousands upon thousands of hectares of land often grow one single genotype of one species of crop, which in terms of biodiversity represents a barren desert, only able to sustain a fraction of the flora and fauna that a forest of the same size could. With arable land becoming scarcer, alternative solutions must be explored to ensure food security for the growing global population.

The ocean as an untapped resource

The ocean presents an immense opportunity to diversify our food sources and alleviate the strain on traditional agriculture. Seaweed, a form of marine algae, is emerging as a key player in ocean cultivation. Unlike traditional land crops, seaweed does not require fertile soil, fresh water, or pesticides for growth. It is a regenerative resource that can thrive in a variety of marine environments, and it has evolved a hardiness against environmental stressors and fluctuations in conditions, making it an ideal candidate for sustainable food production. It has recently been touted as the number one food source on which we could rely in the event of a nuclear winter, given the fact that it would continue to grow in the dark and cold.

Regenerative seaweed farming

Regenerative seaweed farming involves cultivating seaweed in a manner that enhances the health of the ocean ecosystem. Unlike conventional agriculture, which often depletes soil nutrients, seaweed cultivation can contribute to water purification and carbon sequestration. Seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and releases oxygen, acting as a natural carbon sink. Additionally, certain seaweed species have the potential to remove excess nutrients from the water, mitigating the harmful effects of nutrient runoff from land-based agriculture.

The cultivation of seaweed also provides habitat and protection for marine species, fostering biodiversity. By adopting regenerative practices, humans can not only harvest a valuable food resource but also contribute to the restoration and preservation of ocean ecosystems. Ocean farmer Bren Smith is pioneering a vertical kelp farm which takes up only 20 acres of ocean, but produces up to 30 tons of kelp and 250,000 shellfish per acre. His methods are open-sourced, and both his methodology and the farm itself – Thimble Island Ocean Farm – are open to the public. Smith states: “We don’t own the property. All we own is the right to grow shellfish and seaweeds. We own a process, not a property. We’re going to farm to protect our commons rather than privatise it like agriculture did.”

Hunter-gatherers vs farmers

While the concept of ocean cultivation shares similarities with land-based agriculture, it is imperative to recognise the unique challenges and considerations that come with harnessing the potential of the ocean. The dynamic and interconnected nature of marine ecosystems requires a thoughtful and sustainable approach to avoid unintended consequences.

  1. Biodiversity preservation: ocean cultivation should prioritise the preservation of marine biodiversity. Selecting suitable locations for seaweed farms, monitoring ecological impacts, and implementing responsible harvesting practices are essential to prevent disruptions to delicate marine ecosystems.
  2. Regulatory frameworks: as the ocean is a shared resource, international cooperation is crucial in developing and implementing effective regulatory frameworks. These frameworks should ensure sustainable practices, prevent overexploitation, and safeguard the interests of coastal communities dependent on marine resources.
  3. Technological innovation: advancements in technology are essential for optimising ocean cultivation. Remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and robotics can be employed to monitor seaweed farms, assess environmental impacts, and improve cultivation techniques. These innovations can enhance efficiency while minimising the ecological footprint.

Cultivating a food-secure future

Cultivating the ocean as a food source is a viable and necessary solution to meet the nutritional needs of a burgeoning global population. Regenerative seaweed farming stands out as a promising avenue, offering numerous benefits for both human nutrition and the health of marine ecosystems. However, to succeed in this endeavour, humans must approach ocean cultivation with a mindset distinct from traditional land-based agriculture. By embracing sustainability, biodiversity preservation, and technological innovation, we can unlock the vast potential of the ocean and ensure a food-secure future for generations to come.