The Blue Economy: Too Good Not to Be True | Bren Smith

In this second of a two-part program, we plunge into the mind-bending proposition that we get a second chance to remake our broken food economy. Bren Smith, co-founder and co-Executive Director of GreenWave, has created a revolutionary polycultural farming model that has low upfront costs, is easily scalable, and can help mitigate climate change. It’s called regenerative ocean farming and aims to redesign the food economy away from destructive profit-driven practices and agribusiness monopolies in favor of democratizing the food economy.

To listen to the first part of this program click here.

Featuring

Bren Smith, co-executive director and co-founder of GreenWave and owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm, pioneered the development of regenerative ocean farming. Bren is the winner of the 2015 Buckminster Fuller Challenge award. He is an Ashoka, Castanea, and Echoing Green Climate Fellow and James Beard Award-winning author of Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures Farming the Ocean to Fight Climate Change.

Credits

  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel and Arty Mangan
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
  • Production and Engineering Assistance: Rebekah Wineman
  • Production intern: Isabelle Dean

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

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Transcript

NEIL HARVEY, HOST: Some historians, ecologists and agriculturalists suggest that the downfall of human civilization began with the invention of agriculture. As our hunter-gatherer societies transitioned into permanent settlements, it wasn’t just the damage they did to the land, which was formidable over long periods of time. 

Farming also led to the creation of surpluses – enter the first literal bean counters. Soon wealth began to concentrate at the top of the rising pyramid.

In the 20th century, industrial agriculture morphed into agribusiness. It’s a tightly monopolized, ferociously profit-driven partnership between giant corporations and the politicians who love them. It’s a pyramid scheme of a different kind: crucial federal policies that support and defend corporate hegemony. It’s known as “farming the government.” 

Good luck breaking into that game.

Meanwhile, forget the shining Jeffersonian ideal of a thriving nation of independent small farmers. Farmers have devolved in great part into indentured contractors. 

Altogether, we’re left with a degraded food system that’s impossibly vulnerable to all manner of climate shocks, market swings and dis-employment. 

But what if we had it to do all over again – to start with a clean slate? That, says regenerative ocean farmer Bren Smith, is the twice-in-a-civilization opportunity beckoning us today.

Bren Smith, photo courtesy of Greenwave

BREN SMITH: I feel like one of the real deficits of our economy right now is the absence of agency. Right? Of just a regular person like me being able to build a small farm, feed my community, just be in a space of hope and solutions.

HOST: Bren Smith is co-founder and co-Executive Director of GreenWave, a nonprofit dedicated to regenerative ocean farming. Its polycultural farming model grows seaweed and shellfish, and it’s the most affordable food production on the planet, and it regenerates marine biodiversity and mitigates climate change. We spoke with Bren Smith in an online conversation.

BS: One of the keys, I think, in the model is that it’s affordable and replicable. Right? The barrier to entry is very low. Low capital costs, minimal skill requirements. Because it takes between $20 – $50,000 a year to start a farm, depending on where you are and the depths. And you can be up and growing your first year.

The key is to grow things that are zero inputs, that take no feed, no fertilizer, no freshwater, of course, no land, and that makes it hands down the most sustainable food on the planet. Anybody that’s growing zero input food I think is going to have a real advantage and opportunity in this new emerging climate economy because freshwater prices are going to go up, feed/fertilizer prices are all going to go up.

And that’s so key, because that low barrier to entry is the secret to replication and the secret to scale. Right? But not scale through a thousand-acre farms run by single companies where all the benefits are going not to the community but to a few people at the top. Instead it’s network production.

HOST: But Bren Smith is at heart an impassioned fisherman. For him, it’s also about right livelihood, independence, freedom, justice, and solidarity with other working fishermen. It’s about making a living on a living planet by spawning a flush of economic coral reefs.

BS: So we think of it as GreenWave reefs, where you have 50 small-scale farms in an area, a processing hub and a hatchery in a struggling community, and then a ring of entrepreneurs doing these value-added products, and just figuring out all the ways to weave these crops into the economy. And then you replicate those reefs up and down the coasts. That allows for massive, massive scale, large climate impacts, but build a regenerative economy to ensure that everybody benefits.

That allows us both to grow huge amounts of food in small areas. My farm used to be 100 acres and now I’m down to 20 acres growing more food than before. But it also has a low aesthetic impact. And I think that’s important, right? Our oceans are these beautiful, pristine places, so the farm’s below the surface, and all you see are some scattered buoys

The other thing is we don’t privatize that space. Anybody in the community can come in, fish, swim, kayak. The best commercial fishing in the area is actually surrounding my farm because the species come to hide and thrive and eat there. My only right is the right to grow shellfish and seaweeds. Everything else is just an open space. I think that’s really important. Like we don’t want to privatize our lands the way we do in land-based agriculture. Let’s really figure out a strategy of collaboration, of protecting the commons instead of privatizing it.

HOST: An enthusiastic World Bank study found that if five percent of US coastal waters were developed to farm seaweed, it could create 50 million jobs and the protein equivalent of 2.3 trillion cheeseburgers. 

With low upfront costs, GreenWave’s model is easily scalable. 

They’ve created a menu of ways to help farmers who want to dive into the business. It’s particularly focused on lifting the burdens of history – on collaborations with communities that have been historically left behind, shut out, or shut down.

BS: You know, there’s so many folks fighting for reparations on land, right, to get black farmers and Indigenous communities, giving them back their rights to the land. Suddenly in the ocean, this can be right from the gate. This is a huge issue in the US.

So right now, indigenous communities have no right to farm, guaranteed right to farm on the waters outside their towns and villages. So they’re worried all the momentum around this might create the next sort of white land grab. But of the ocean.

So, for example, we just supported the first Indigenous-owned seaweed hatchery in the country, and that was in collaboration with Dune Lankard and a bunch of other, sort of, heroes of the indigenous movement. And that’s so important, right, that indigenous communities own their own seed.

We are partnering with Indigenous communities and leaders like Dune to develop what would be a set of principles and rights of ocean use and farming and preferencing for Indigenous communities.

We’ve got this high touch and low touch program. The high touch targets specifically indigenous communities and fishermen directly affected by climate change. We help permit, we help set up the farms, we develop business plans, we connect and create foreign contracts between buyers and growers, sort of a whole range of benefits.

But then to address the 6,000 people on our waiting list for programming, we’ve developed a platform: a toolkit, where farmers are able to like type in some different conditions, like their depths, their bottom type, lease size, and it actually spits out a full-farm design tied to a budget and a gear list, all these sort of things I wish I had two decades ago.

And then the farmer data dashboard so you can track what’s happening on your farm. And then a digital co-op. So we’re rolling out each piece over the next few years, and I think that’s going to be vital to continue to give people the agency to start this on their own, but tools so they don’t make the same mistakes I did over the years, and increase the chance of success.

HOST: Start-up costs depend on the location, but on average an ocean farmer with 20 acres, a boat and about $20,000 can eventually earn $90,000 to $120,000 per year once the farm matures, while generating approximately 150,000 shellfish and ten tons of seaweed per acre. In other words, you don’t have to be rich to get in the game. And the ocean could care less what race, ethnicity, religion or gender you are.

BS: You know, our farmers are from all walks of life. We have young land-based farmers that can’t afford land because it’s so expensive for land-based farming; we’ve got veterans; we’ve got retired cops and firemen, things like that. One of the farmers that has really risen to the top is Catherine Puckett, and she grows oysters, clams, and seaweeds out on Block Island, Rhode Island. She’s got a pink boat and she’s got an all-male crew, and the male crew hates being on a pink boat. They complain about it all the time, but they’ve got a full-time, year-round job on this island. Usually you have to leave, right, in the winter. And maybe that’s the future of what this Blue economy looks like.

What happens if it’s not just about justice, like equity for women, but women are the architects of this new economy, right, making us white, crusty men work on their pink boats. Like that’s kind of—[LAUGHS] that’s really kind of exciting.

We actually did this listening tour of women. Because I woke up one day. I was like there are so many women, like hatchery owners and farmers, and, you know, doing start-ups. We asked them, like why, what are you doing here? [LAUGHS] And they said, well, in like—its history hasn’t been written yet; it isn’t this calcified thing of a male run industry that we can actually participate and maybe build something different. Right? So it’s not just about food but actually sort of bringing to bear the power, the creativity, the vision of folks that have been excluded.

So one of the things we really care about is, you know, fighting injustice and addressing poverty, making sure the folks that have been left behind by the Industrial Revolution or were systematically excluded, that they are in the front of this Blue revolution. The hatcheries, like land-based infrastructure, is a way to do that. You don’t have to be a fisherman. You don’t have to be someone who’s been on a boat many years to participate in this and to benefit from it. GreenWave’s Hatchery is one of the poorest communities on the East Coast, and we have a new BIPOC program, like a jobs pipeline for folks of color to come in, learn how to run hatcheries. It’s a paid program. You know? There aren’t thousands of people trained in running a seaweed hatchery, for example, so that opportunity to create that pipeline, but create it in the right way has been really key.

HOST: This, says Bren Smith, is the crux of the twice-in-a-civilization moment. But the Blue Revolution is actually the first time we have the opportunity to intentionally build a food system from the bottom up – and to democratize it.

BS: We don’t have to unravel Big Ag. Right? We don’t have to unravel land ownership and all those things. What we can do is start with a clean slate and build it from the bottom up, and embed these principles of justice, like, into the DNA of this new economy. Let’s not privatize seed. Let’s make sure that beginning farmers can access ocean property at low cost.

This sector, as we’re building this economy from the bottom up, it raises all these fascinating issues, like, can we correct injustice of the past by building it right in the ocean. Right? Let’s do agriculture right.

The only way we’re going to do that is if this is not me. Right? I mean, I developed GreenWave as a strategy in planned obsolescence, quite honestly, just because I never planned, never wanted to run a nonprofit. I just want to be on my farm and die in my boat.

HOST: Bren Smith says it turned out that was the right strategy; bringing together leaders from all walks of life to take on building this new Blue Economy, tapping into blue collar innovation. The way he sees it, the models will only get better and better.

BS: I expect in 10 years I’m going to go out to do regenerative ocean farming and it’s going to be, look completely different, right, in all these great ways. And it’s actually a huge challenge, right? There’s a tsunami of interest. But that’s where the power is.

We need all hands on deck, to grapple with the challenge of growing food underwater. It’s the most volatile place to grow food on the planet. We can’t see the crops we grow, And I can’t control my soil, my soil turns over a thousand times a day. So that volatility demands creativity from all walks of life.

And it’s this opportunity to build a collaborative community-based ethic and culture of sharing and cooperation.

HOST: This blue renaissance means developing new economic models anchored in values of economic democracy, justice and collaborative creativity. That’s where the Blue New Deal surfaces.

More when we return…

HOST: The GreenWave model is partly anchored in what are called “anchor institutions.” Unlike the corporate hit-and-run economics that invade communities, pipeline the wealth out, then move on to the next mark, anchor institutions are rooted in community for the long haul. They’re sometimes called “eds and meds” – educational and medical institutions. 

In growing numbers of communities in the US, they sign on as stable, long-term purchasing partners that directly support community-based small entrepreneurs, worker-owned businesses and co-ops. The goal is to grow transgenerational community-based wealth and build a more decentralized, democratized economy.

BS: You  know, one of the challenges of the food economy, as it’s sort of the farmers’ market, CSAs and the high-end restaurants is that it’s really hard to scale that, and it remains boutique. Right? And institutions are one of the answers to that.

So, you know, Google serves up, you know, over 100,000 free meals a day. And so that’s a key outlet for our crops. Right? Then the hospital economy is incredible. We haven’t done this yet, but I think it’s a huge opportunity.  Hospitals are hard at work creating nutrition programs serving good food in order to get people healthy again or keep them healthy. Right? So the good local food we grow needs to be a key to that.

I’m here in New Haven, which is half the city, of land owned, is owned by nonprofits, a university – Yale – and a hospital system, also Yale. And the institutions really need to start playing their proper role and investing in the community. I mean, right now, it’s extremely extractive, and, you know, Yale has one of the biggest—the biggest endowment in the country.

So institutions are a key role for us in the reef model. We work closely with places like University of Santa Barbara, with Woods Hole, University of Connecticut, to keep our farmers ahead of the climate curve. Right? Because our waters are changing so fast. Water temperatures are going up that I need to be growing a whole different set of crops 15 years from now. And the scientists have just been absolutely key to that, I think.

So that’s like in the labs. But then in the cafeterias, we can introduce the entire new young generation of folks to things like sea greens, sea vegetables, the broader palate of shellfish. Those anchor institutions, I think, are absolutely key to our success.

HOST: What may have seemed like a drunken sailor’s dream is getting real. Every coastal state in North America has requested GreenWave’s ocean farms. Humboldt Bay is home to California’s first commercial, open-water seaweed farm. Led by Humboldt State University and supported by GreenWave, this pilot project stands to kickstart an industry where environmental sustainability and economic benefits go hand in hand – along a very long coastline.

Dozens of countries around the world are now implementing the model. As part of its reparations program, New Zealand granted 12,000 hectares to the Indigenous Maori people that can be used for ocean farming. 

Needless to say, there’s a clash between these twice-in-a-civilization models – between the past and the future. In the ring, it’s concentrated corporate power taking on the upstart challenger: a democratized, decentralized economy of distributed ownership and wealth.

BS: GreenWave, we view our role as helping build a movement, right, so that there’s just thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people hard at work trying to figure this out, so that’s not about GreenWave controlling or owning or franchising or anything. Those are tools of the old economy. Right? Our model is around collaboration, shared learning, shared innovation. I think that’s going to allow us to replicate and increase that learning curve faster and faster.

And in fact, when we train farmers, they signed a document that says they agree to share all their learnings. And there are farmers that come and they’re like, No, no, I don’t want to do that. So we’re like, okay, great, go succeed. But we really believe that that principle of collaboration, sharing, and community learning is just absolutely vital.

Photo courtesy of Greenwave

HOST: Bren Smith says that one of the great fears he has is that big, predatory companies will take advantage of the innovation and work that GreenWave and others have done to build hatcheries and processing plants and to stimulate the market.

BS: And now we’re seeing big companies come in, companies like Trident. There’s oil companies getting interested, involved. And like Trident, for example, is leasing grounds to farm in Alaska.

It’s clear to a lot of us and definitely in the ocean space, we need new investment models, right? Our waters are swimming with – let’s call them fuzzy sharks. Right? These folks have made an incredible amount of money on Wall Street, and then are coming to sort of do good, to have legacies, things like that, which is great. Right? And I’ve met a lot of these folks. They need to understand, like if they’re bringing the old models, they’re in climate denial.

HOST: When Bren says “climate denial”, he means that while these companies may acknowledge the existence of climate change, they somehow still believe they can make high returns in the short run using models from the old, extractive, dirty economy. The investment models that Bren Smith favors are not only climate friendly, but farmer friendly as well. For instance, they offer creative repayment options to pay back debt if they need a loan to get started.

BS: So revenue with a cap, right, is one model, where you get like a two percent loan; you don’t pay it back until you start making money, and then you start paying it back, and you fully pay back the loan plus two percent. Like that’s a really food friendly and ag friendly kind of business model. And I think the solidarity economy, the just transition movement have really taught us a lot about how do we match our farms, what we produce, and the value we provide to society, but allow it to scale with the right kind of money in a healthy, regenerative way.

HOST: Fuzzy sharks aside, Bren Smith sees the very real opportunity to tap the ocean for climate solutions. That vision is at the heart of a Blue New Deal proposal that he drafted with marine biologist and author Ayana Johnson and with Chad Nelsen of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation.

It’s about “reimagining the ocean as a protagonist, as a place where we can build real climate solutions.” 

During the 2020 Presidential election, Bren Smith participated in a CNN town hall with candidate Elizabeth Warren. He threw some policy bait in the water.

BS: My oyster farm was destroyed by two hurricanes. Now warm waters and acidification are killing seed coast to coast and reducing yields. Those of us on the water, we need climate solutions and we need them now. The trouble is the green new deal only mentions our oceans one time. This is despite the fact that our seas soak up more than 25 percent of the world’s carbon. So what’s your plan for a Blue New Deal for those of us working on the ocean?

ELIZABETH WARREN: I like that!

BS: How do we make sure that all of us can make a living on a living planet?

EW: So thank you. I think it is a great question and I think he has got it exactly right. We need a Blue New Deal as well. Good for you! [Applause]

BS: You know it is bizarre that the Green New Deal mentions the ocean one time. I mean, we just forget about the oceans when we think about solutions, about policy. It’s all about addressing overfishing and things like that, which are all important.

So yeah, I asked Senator Warren about the Blue New Deal, and the great thing about Senator Warren, she immediately rolled out a plan. One of the key players in that was Dr. Ayana Johnson, who’s a dear friend and inspiration, who helped really shape that piece of policy. And as far as I know, it was the first time the ocean became sort of—it was part of the policy debate and framework. FOX News actually attacked regenerative ocean farming. The first time it had ever been said, and to me—People asked like what are your metrics of success. Well, it was attacked on FOX News. Excellent. [LAUGHTER]

HOST: The goal, says Bren Smith, is to build the principles of justice and ownership into any Blue New Deal policies. One example is ensuring that communities have control over the hatcheries, farms and processing plants that operate locally.

BS: Here in Connecticut, we wrote something called the Seaweed Jobs Bill, which created a framework because there was no law on seaweed farming in this area. So in these pieces of legislation, we can mandate, for example, the farms need to be locally owned, so it doesn’t look like Iowa, where most of the pigs that are raised in Iowa are owned—they’re companies that are out of state. Let’s actually control and limit the size of the farms. Right? A certain amount of acreage. Let’s have leases up for renewal every five to 10 years so there’s a lever of democratic control for communities. So I think the Blue New Deal and the state-to-state work on this opens up an opportunity.

Some of the components are training 10,000 young people to be sort of like a civilian conservation corps, but for the ocean, to plant mangroves, grasses, kelp, shellfish, creating a climate fund that will pay farmers for the positive things they do. Right? For capturing carbon, nitrogen for rebuilding reefs

Food security. So let’s have farmers out planting those public grounds for clams so communities can come out and collect their own food, especially in times like this when we have food system breakdown.

So the Blue New Deal, I think, is a place where the food movement, the agricultural movement can rally behind, and let’s match the energy around the Green New Deal, the vision on agriculture, but let’s do it underwater too.

And so the big question is: Will public policy people get behind us to defend this other vision? The folks that just want to be as extractive as possible, concentrate benefits at the top, have farmers just like as workers working for bosses in the fields. Right? Are we going to let that happen or are we going to be like, we have the control and the power to build something beautiful for once. Right? But we need a movement behind that. Right? We really need them defending this vision and really fighting for it.

HOST: As Bren Smith observes, the challenge is whether the high tide of global regenerative food and farming movements can lift enough public policy boats to launch the Blue Revolution.

If, as the saying goes, the world is your oyster, then it’s high tide for personal agency and collective action to make something beautiful this second time around.

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