Changing the Planet (And The Seafood Menu)

Bren Smith is the founder of GreenWave, an organization dedicated to restoring oceans, mitigating climate change and creating jobs via ocean farming of sea greens and shellfish. We spoke with Bren and his newest board member Mike Shim about why a ‘blue-green economy’ is so important and why it represents an enormous investment opportunity.

GreenWave, changing the planet

Ashoka: Let’s start by quickly going through a few fun seaweed facts that people might not know.

Bren Smith: Absolutely! But before we get going, I want to introduce some new vocabulary. Part of our mission here at GreenWave is to change people’s perception of seaweeds, and we are doing that by referring to seaweed and other macroalgae as ‘sea greens.’ Because that’s closer to what they really are – vital food from the ocean, and not nuisance ‘weed.’ For one, kelp is one of the fastest growing plants in the world – in ideal conditions it can grow two feet a day. When you’re farming it, you can go from seed to harvest in just two weeks. It’s also one of the most carbon absorbing plants, which is obviously important as carbon in our atmosphere and oceans has surpassed dangerous levels. And from a nutritional standpoint, kelp is high in protein, low in fat, and loaded with good vitamins and minerals including hard-to-find Vitamin B-12 and Omega-3 fatty acids. A lot of the good nutrients you get from fish actually come from sea greens.

Ashoka: Ok, you got it – sea greens from here on! You talk about reimagining the seafood plate and even the dinner plate to make room for all kinds of sea greens. Is that realistic?

Bren: I think it’s both realistic and necessary. Let’s not forget many cultures have been eating sea greens for centuries, especially in Asia. This is not a brand new idea. We’re already seeing so many creative uses – kelp noodles, chips, animal feed. We’re seeing it added to juices or as garnish on salads. You’ve got top chefs developing creative ways to integrate sea greens. And this doesn’t even get into non-edible uses like biofuel.

But when I talk about reimagining the seafood plate, the main point here is that people keep tweaking our unsustainable food system in small ways, but they’re not yet reimagining the plate based on what our planet can provide. This is where the promise of 3D Ocean Farming comes in: We can grow nutritious food with zero inputs – no water, no land, nofertilizers. Just oceans and the sun. It’s the most sustainable form of food production on the planet, and in fact, it improves our oceans, which is why we call it restorative farming.

Ashoka: What’s it going to take to grow this market from niche to mainstream? What are the barriers?

Bren: Well, we’ve already proven that with 20 acres, a boat, and $20,000 you can get started as a small ocean farmer. That is a godsend for a fishing industry that is in decline and for fishermen who are increasingly finding themselves out of work. This represents a reboot, a new chance.

Ashoka: And a chance to be ‘climate farmers’ as you call them.

Bren: Exactly. What’s beautiful is this is a way that a single person can do something about the planet. It doesn’t require you to be a Google or the US government or have billions in capital.

Ashoka: What do these climate farmers need to succeed?

Bren: What GreenWave has done is provide farmers with early support and best practices – and we’ve also become an education and evangelizing platform. We’ve built the largest network of sea greens hatcheries in the US to supply our farmers with reliable seed. But the industry needs some major infrastructure investment to take off, and the time is now.

Ashoka: Mike, what kinds of infrastructure are we talking about here?

Mike Shim: We’re talking about the infrastructure that helps farmers get their products to market. That can mean solar-powered boats that can harvest 250,000 pounds instead of the 30-foot boats most are using now. It means processing facilities that get farmers’ products to market in the form of kelp noodles, jerky, animal feed and the many other uses for kelp. It means packaging and distribution infrastructure that is tailored to water-based agriculture. And of course, it means helping grow the market and demand for these products.

Bren: We need a Manhattan Project for ocean greens. We can bring together the best minds who want to do agriculture in the right way – that’s good for the planet, healthy for people and it creates good jobs, meaning that young farmers can actually afford the leases to farm the ocean. And that revitalizes communities and positions the same people who have been left behind in the industrial, dirty economy as a restorative force for the planet. There are so many possibilities here and people are instinctively drawn to what we’re doing.

Ashoka: And you’re saying they should be drawn to it because there’s also a real business opportunity here?

Mike: Yes. This is one of the clearest ways to leverage the tool of capitalism in a way that can produce significant positive social returns. Sea greens are already a $7-10 billion industry globally. So we’re not starting from scratch, and yet we’re just scratching the surface. There are over 10,000 edible plants in the ocean. Bren has created the spark with GreenWave, and now we have an opportunity to really build a blue-green economy with profits that are attractive to pure investors and an array of social benefits that are as broad and deep as any you’ll find. We’re incredibly excited to take some bold steps in this direction with a new for-profit venture on the horizon. Check back with us and GreenWave for more details soon.

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