How Regenerative Ocean Farming Might Help Our Climate. Interview with GreenWave founder, Bren Smith.

GreenWave is a non-profit training and supporting regenerative ocean farmers around the world. Their ocean farms are exciting because the vertical, polyculture design allows for a diverse array of ocean plants and shellfish to grow comfortably together in a relatively small area, which it turns out might be pretty important to the climate discussion.

Roughly twenty-five percent of CO2 in our atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans, but underwater plants such as seaweed - which can convert this carbon into oxygen - are able to absorb five times more carbon than land-based plants. This is why, according to the World bank, a network of ocean farms occupying only five percent of US waters would be able to offset the carbon emissions of twenty million cars. And what’s more, these farms could provide a sustainable food source to millions - and a healthy one at that. Seaweeds alone are rich in fiber, vitamins A, B, C, and E and one serving offers more iron than beef, more protein than soybeans, and more calcium than milk. So a diet shifted in a more ‘blue’ direction might not just be better for the planet, but for our bodies too.

This is obviously all super exciting, so we wanted to chat to the man who started it all, Bren Smith.

We caught up with Bren - founder of GreenWave - on an intercontinental Skype call the other day from Berlin to Connecticut. I apologised if the time difference had imposed an unwelcome early morning wake up, but he retorted, “It’s 9am. That’s midday for a fisherman.”

Born and raised in a fishing village in Newfoundland, Canada, it was natural then, at the age of fourteen, for Bren to leave home and set sail for his life as a commercial fisherman. And he lived that life, for many years, until it was suddenly brought to a halt.

“We got too good at what we did, with industrial fishing. We were pillagers. The evidence was the cod stock crash [in the 1990s] where thirty-thousand people were thrown out of work overnight. That taught me there’s going to be no jobs and no food in a dead ocean.”

But there was no way he was going to give up on his life at sea, he explains: “So I tried aquaculture [fish farming] but unfortunately it was not what I was looking for as it’s not sustainable… The ocean doesn't function as a single species ecosystem, so when you grow incredible amounts of fish in small areas, Mother Nature attacks with parasites and disease, so you have to feed them with mountains of antibiotics, and the fish also break out. Essentially the ocean fights back against that [monoculture] farming system.”

“When you ask the ocean, what does it make sense to grow, it gives you a really simple answer: Grow things that don't swim away and you don't have to feed.”

So that’s exactly what he did, nearly twenty years ago, when he founded GreenWave and they created the first vertical polyculture Ocean farm. Or as he calls them, Regenerative Ocean Farms. Bren certainly wasn’t the first to cultivate the crops of the ocean - ocean farming dates back thousands of years - but the vertical, polyculture design of the GreenWave Ocean Farm Model was a new innovation which offered a lot of potential.

“Regenerative ocean farming really brings together everything in one very simple system, growing a whole mix of different species. Think of it as an underwater garden. You have ropes to the surface, to buoys, just like underwater scaffolding, and from there you grow species like kelp, which is a seaweed, and goes vertically downwards attached to the ropes. Then we have scallops, in lantern nets, mussels in mussels socks and then oysters in cages and clams in the mud. The whole idea is to take just twenty acres of ocean and grow as many species as possible. We can grow huge amounts of food in small areas because of the vertical nature of it.”

To us, the most exciting part of the GreenWave ocean farming model is how much potential it offers in fighting the climate crisis. As Bren explains: “Sustainability is about making bad things better, but what we need to do is move beyond sustainability into regeneration and use our agricultural system to breathe life back into our land and our oceans. And that’s why we grow species that capture carbon and nitrogen. Every other breath we breathe as humans comes from the oceans. So the idea is to really grow the species that play a core ecosystem role in keeping the planet resilient.”

Bren feels that a reframing of our perspective on the oceans might be the key to many of the problems our society faces.

“We don’t look to the ocean often as a place for solutions. We look at it as a victim. Of acidification, overfishing, slavery on shrimp boats, all these things, right? But I think it’s clear with climate change to look to the ocean as a place for scaled, promising solutions. The tides are rising, so we can either build sea walls, flee the coasts, or we can turn around and be like ‘Oh, this is more land. This is one big farm’. I’m planning to be farming in between the skyscrapers on Wall Street in twenty years.”

Alongside the climate benefits, ocean farming also provides alternative career options to those working in shrinking fishing industries, as Bren explains: “As the climate changes and fish stocks decline, what are these [fishermens] jobs going to be? Are we going to just be in cubicles doing Zoom calls all the time? Is that our future? Or can we create climate jobs with meaning?”

And as a parallel, non-food strategy, ocean plants can also be harvested for a range of other sustainable uses such as bioplastics, compostable packaging and even clothing.

“Turning [seaweed] into a material - that’s a ‘whole leaf’ strategy. Every part of the leaf we’re then able to use and build a market for and that’s really good for climate resiliency.”

The barriers to entry for prospective farmers are also much lower when setting up shop on the ocean. And there’s less financial risk, too.

“The challenge with farming is overhead, right? The cost of fertiliser, land costs, buildings… In the ocean, it’s zero input. No fertiliser, no feed, no freshwater, you don’t really have to fight gravity. These things make your overhead really, really low, which allows us to actually have more of our profits. And climate change is going to drive up the input costs of land based farming. Water costs are gonna go up, fertiliser, feed, energy, are all gonna go up.”

But, of course, this raises the question: If ocean farming truly offers such economical potential whilst providing a sustainable food source and most importantly, tackling the climate crisis, why aren’t governments pouring money into it? And why aren’t we all talking about it? When I quizzed Bren on this, he had a pretty convincing answer - they are. Well they may not be pouring money into it just yet, but ocean farming has entered the conversation.

“In the latest Presidential Primaries, we saw for the first time this emerge with the Blue New Deal - that actually included regenerative ocean farming. It was the first time we saw it become part of the debate. Fox News actually said the words 'regenerative ocean farming’. They spit it out with negativity, but that’s fine. That’s progress to me.”

Photo: Matthew Novak

And although you might not have heard too much about regenerative ocean farming just yet, you likely will soon. GreenWave already has a 6,000 strong waiting list of keen ocean farmers from more than 102 countries looking to join their training program and start farming a piece of the ocean for themselves. And they’re aiming to train 10,000 more farmers over the next ten years.

“We’re just a small organisation. This isn’t Google or Amazon. It’s just regular folks from all walks of life. And I think that’s a very important social message. But if there can be some public policy support, I think there’ll be a lot more momentum. God knows there's plenty of water out there.”

Thank you to Bren and the GreenWave team.

Check out Bren’s award-winning book “Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer”.

And you can learn more about GreenWave’s approach here.

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Words by Ewan Waddell.