Ocean Innovation: Looking To the Sea to Sustainably Meet Global Agricultural Need

As the world population continues to grow, we need protein from land and sea in ever-increasing amounts and quality. This has driven us toward genetic modification of seeds, industrial agriculture, dramatic increase in fertilizer development and use, and experiments with aquaculture to replace the protein from the ocean more and more reduced by over-fishing. Each of these is fraught with resistance, consequence, and sometimes abuse that do not necessarily meet the challenge.
What about the ocean and agriculture? Is there a contribution the ocean can make beyond aquaculture toward sustainable food production worldwide? Let me offer two hopeful examples:
The first is a land-based phenomenon, a process for farming that does not need soil, fossil fuels, groundwater, or pesticides — production even in the desert that is sustained by sun and seawater. Sundrop Farms is a project in Port Augusta in Southern Australia, a 20 hectare farm that grows tomatoes and other vegetables hydroponically in greenhouses powered by the sun. The system is growing tomatoes in “soil” composed of coconut husks and waste cardboard saturated in seawater with energy for pumps and other electrical support generated by the sun. Today the farm is growing some 18,000 tomato plants — 17,000 metric tons of food already on sale in Australian grocery stores. The system cost over $200 million dollars to build. An intimidating sum, but investors are confident of payback and return by the substantial cost savings by not having to purchase fossil fuel energy in a very expensive market. Expansion is already planned, with the addition of peppers and fruits.
Sundrop is also building new such facilities in similar zones — Portugal in Europe and Tennessee in the United States.
What we have here is a fascinating adaptation to the realities of the global energy market and fresh water crisis. There is inherent in the concept not just reaction, but pro-action, realizing that the market cost of land acquisition and conventional fossil fuel-based energy can be mitigated by alternative availability of land, reducing expenses dramatically, exploiting the available supply of free sun and seawater, and providing protein at scale to profitably meet a worldwide demand.

Are smart floating farms (SFF) the wave of the future? Combining solar energy, hydroponics, and aquaculture, this technology is a forward-looking investment in long-term security and resilience. Photo credit: Inhabitat.com
A second example speaks to the larger question of the availability of arable land. Industrial agriculture, for all its benefit, has nonetheless caused serious detriment to land available for farming. Add to that the climate impacts of severe weather, drought, and over-consumption by irrigation from the aquifer and ground water supply; add to that the escalating cost of expansion, equipment, and fertilizer, and the nitrate pollution of increased use of that fertilizer; and add to that the impact of hydraulic fracking for oil in farming areas that has caused productive land to be converted to this alternative use, and you have another crisis of aridity, availability, and accountability of traditionally arable land.
So, consider the concept of floating farms, large structures in the ocean, used to complement and expand traditional farming, again exploiting the availability of salt or desalinated water and alternative energy from sun and wind, enabling both hydroponic growing and aquaculture, creating new employment for small-scale farmers and fishers, and providing the protein that the exhausted land can no longer. Located in secure areas adjacent to energy and water, protected against sea level rise and extreme weather by seawall and barriers, creating value through labor and reduced cost, floating farms can be constructed now, using available engineering and technology, as a forward-looking investment in long-term food security and resilience.
It is not incorrect to say that these innovations could meet the food demand for the entire world. How can we do otherwise?
- - -
“Ocean Agriculture” was originally broadcast as an audio episode on World Ocean Radio. It is part of the Earth Optimism Series, 24 posts profiling conservation actions and innovations to reduce our impacts on the planet. The Earth Optimism Series is brought to you by the World Ocean Observatory in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal, to raise awareness of the Earth Optimism Summit during Earth Day weekend, April 21st through 23rd, 2017 in Washington DC and around the world. Read more solutions and success stories here and share your own ideas at earthoptimism.si.edu.