In a food world that flips from fad superfood to superfood, an increasingly skeptical public has to ask which miracle crop has the staying power. In order to be called “the next Kale,” a food has to demonstrate not only exceptional nutritional value, but positive environmental and ecological externalities, potential to meet large-scale need, and the ability to create jobs at home. Our nonprofit, GreenWave, and our farm, the Thimble Island Oyster Company, are betting that the new kale won’t come from land at all, but rather, from the sea. We believe that long-underutilized seaweeds will become the basis of a new food chain.
There are more than 10,000 edible plant species in the ocean, in an impressive variety of forms, from dense sea beans to leathery kelp fronds to frilly sea lettuces. These plants have been integrated into global cuisines for generations, but are largely neglected in the developed world. The possibilities for reintroducing sea vegetables into the contemporary diet are limitless. Ocean greens boast an impressive nutritional profile. Some species pack more calcium per serving than milk, others more iron than red meat, and still others more protein than soybeans. Thimble Island’s flagship crop, sugar kelp (saccharina latissima) has been adopted by chefs and food entrepreneurs nationwide; these innovators have worked to “de-sushify” seaweed, serving up kelp noodles, kelp butter, and kelp cocktails instead. Ocean’s Halo released a full line of nori chips, pushing to make kelp a viable alternative to snack foods.
Last year, we supplied the first domestically produced seaweed ever served at a White House state dinner.
And the high potential of sea vegetables doesn’t just lie in the kitchen. As global climate change continues to make water a scarce and expensive resource, terrestrial crops appear less and less able to meet our needs. With climatologists projecting an 80% chance of a millennium drought in the next 30 years, a feedstock with no freshwater input like sea vegetables will be critical for meeting the needs of a still-growing population.
A zero-input food has great potential to remain cost-competitive in any market, especially as growing scarcity of cropland and fresh water drive up the prices of conventional crops and feedstocks. As the price of freshwater rises, sea vegetables will become the most affordable food on the planet. Because kelp is a zero-input crop, capable of thriving even in high-nitrogen conditions that harm other species, it’s one of the most sustainable foods on the planet, and one of the few edible crops that improves the health and biodiversity of its ecosystem.
Sea vegetables, though, don’t just anticipate a climate-changed planet. Our models for cultivating these species actively help to mitigate and repair environmental problems. Seaweed and shellfish farms like ours can serve as carbon sinks, a fast-growing aquatic rainforest that sequesters atmospheric carbon and reduces acidification. Sea vegetables are not alone in this; rather they form the backbone for a polyspecies model of farming where shellfish, sea cucumbers, and other restorative species can collaborate to remediate the environment. The shellfish we raise in concert with seaweed absorb nitrogen, usually a pollutant in aquatic ecologies, and help maintain a healthy ecology, often undoing damage done by nitrogen-rich runoff from terrestrial farms.
Further, as tides and storms grow higher and more intense with climate change, farms like Thimble Island function as artificial reefs, reducing storm surges. Especially in cities like New York, once protected by abundant oyster beds but now vulnerable to flooding, these artificial reefs are an inexpensive and effective way to avoid billions of dollars in flood damage.
In order to facilitate the transition to large-scale seaweed agriculture, we will need serious and sustained infrastructure development, tailored to the kind of food system producers deserve. That’s why GreenWave is pioneering the country’s first member-owned cooperative seafood-processing hub in Fair Haven, Connecticut. With processing, cold storage, and shipping facilities, this hub will allow small-scale producers to capture more of the value chain while also enabling them to sell directly to local retailers and consumers, all while rebuilding the seafaring economy of one of the poorest shoreline communities on the east coast. Hubs like these empower entire regions of farmers to unlock value in their crops, and release them from dependence on distributors and retailers. If we expect this new economy to succeed, then we have to undergird it with the best infrastructure possible.
Our last focus is on developing the market end of this blue-green industry. Through access to infrastructure, we aim to empower farmers to develop new sea-vegetable-based products, and to reap the benefits of that innovation directly. Specialized products like pickled kelp stems, kelp fettucine and sea salts can help these farms reach new markets while still having tried-and-true sellers like oysters and mussels to fall back on.
Product development won’t be limited to the culinary market either. Seaweeds boast a host of possible applications. For the past two years, we’ve collaborated with the Yale Sustainable Food Program to pilot a kelp-based fertilizer on their farm, and we’ve recently begun exploring seaweed as a plausible feed for beef cattle, encouraged by research suggesting that seaweed feeds could cut bovine-methane emissions by 90%.
Kelp offers the potential to anticipate our changing climate, and to meet it head on with anticipatory climate strategies. In the coming years, we’ll be less and less able to grow in conventional ways, and certainly not as cheaply. With kelp, we can not only meet this challenge, but also pioneer a new way of supplying food markets and capturing value for small-scale producers.