What Is A 3D Ocean Farm, And Why Do We Need Them?

Our world is fraught with problems. We have armed conflicts in every corner of the globe, economic woes, and cultural tensions threatening to destabilize entire nations—and that’s just scratching the surface. There is no one cure that will magically fix things, but there are things we can do to help. A new farming technique moves the traditional agriculture model into the ocean, freeing up land space while also helping to mitigate several of the issues that plague humanity.

What’s wrong with traditional farming?

In short, nothing. The standard form of farming that we’ve been using for millennia has its place. Most ubiquitous goods such as fruits, vegetables, and beef don’t lend themselves to ocean farming, and frankly, I’d rather die than live in a world without cheeseburgers. But the land-based farming model comes with several challenges, many of which are reaching a critical tipping point. For example, there is no question that the Earth’s population is booming. We need land to house all of these people, and at the same time, we need even more land on which to grow the crops that they must eat. We’re quickly running out of room on this planet, and the relatively inefficient use of farmland isn’t exactly helping.

There’s also the issue of general pollution. Farms create an amazing amount of waste, which very rapidly finds its way into our waterways. For example, most of the pollution in the San Francisco Bay can be attributed to the millions of acres of farmland in the surrounding areas. These farms create runoff in the form of pesticides, animal waste, and other byproducts, which “runs off” into the rivers and streams of the Sacramento River Delta—and then straight into the Bay. This pollution destroys ecosystems and adds to things like ocean acidification. Of course, there are other forms of pollution, as well. Cows are a huge source of methane, which is a leading cause of global warming.

All of this being said, our species is facing a lot of issues that are completely unrelated to farming. Land use aside, we need to rethink the way we feed the planet. The current methods of trawling for seafood is decimating our oceans—around 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation.[1] 3D ocean farms are quite possibly the greenest, most sustainable way to feed the world.

What exactly is a 3D ocean farm?

Anyone who has owned an aquarium understands the importance of balance. You can’t just toss 30 goldfish into a tank and expect them to thrive—you need to consider the aquatic ecosystem as a whole, and make sure all the pieces fit. You may want some top feeders, some mid-feeders, and bottom feeders.  You may want plants to help oxygenate, and herbivores to keep the plants in check. Algae-eaters keep surfaces clean, and filter feeders remove organic detritus from the water. 3D ocean farms work on this same principle.

But first, let’s talk about why these farms are called “3D”. To illustrate this, it may help to first imagine a traditional farm.  Let’s say Dwight has a beet farm in rural Pennsylvania. Dwight will likely need several acres of land in order to plant a worthwhile number of beets, simply because he only has one plane to work with: the very top level of soil.  Dwight can’t really plant beets under his existing beets, and even if he were to build a structure that allowed him to suspend his beets in mid-air above his existing crop, the lower beets wouldn’t get any sunlight. This single-plane model can be thought of as a 2D farm. You can grow your crops along the length and width axis, but not so much along the height axis.

However, things are different in the ocean. Water provides the perfect medium to build along all three axes, and kelp, being the backbone of a 3D ocean farm, is already adapted to grow straight up from the seafloor to the surface. But instead of just one plane of kelp, as you would have with beets (i.e. traditional farming), you have layers of planes, all running through the kelp.  And each layer can support a different micro-ecosystem.  For example, one 3D ocean farm model might start with macrocystis (Giant Kelp) running from the sea bed to the surface. Along the bottom, one may set up an environment suitable for clams or crabs, which can be harvested via humane traps. A little further up, there may be an oyster-friendly environment. Above that may be mussels, grown in specially-designed mussel socks, and the surface layer will support the edible blades of the kelp.

The really special thing about this kind of farm is that it’s made of natural materials, in their natural environment, and is totally open to the ocean. A well-constructed 3D farm essentially recreates a kelp forest, a desirable haven for many, many species. These farms don’t need fences or cages to retain animals—the goal is to attract them, allow them to live there, feed, and leave if they choose, and then harvest a sustainable number on an as-needed basis. These farms work by creating the best ecosystem around, which attract animals, and then only harvesting what the ecosystem can handle. Just another way 3D farms turn traditional livestock farming on its head: unlike most farms, where there is little incentive to maintain a quality of life for their stock, 3D farms require it. If the farm doesn’t offer the best habitat, the fish, crabs, and other life will leave, potentially throwing everything out of balance. Imagine if all farms operated on this principle… if cows would wander away if they weren’t being treated property. It changes our dynamic from the powerful humans subjugating helpless animals to more of a symbiotic relationship. Our duty under this model is to “convince” the animals to stay—we provide them a quality life, food, and safety, and they, in turn, stick around to be harvested.

How can this save the planet?

3D ocean farming is more than just a sustainable method of agriculture, it can actually do a lot to help the planet, from the oceans to the climate. First, as alluded to above, these farms act as de facto kelp forests. This is incredibly important, as kelp forests (and the associated habitat, which sustains an amazing number of species) are disappearing at an alarming rate.[2] Second, 3D farms are amazingly productive. While a 20-acre lima bean farm will yield about 15 tons a year, or 20 acres of peas will produce about 22 tons[3], a 20-acre 3D farm can produce over 600 tons of greens and five million shellfish annually. A farm the size of Washington state could feed the entire planet—all without using land resources. And third, these farms are uniquely good for the environment[4], for myriad reasons. They are easier on the environment when it comes to production, exemplifying what we call “zero-input” farming: they require no land, no fresh water, and no fertilizer. Earlier, we mentioned the idea of balance: balance is key for 3D farms. In traditional farming, the focus is often on one lucrative product, leading to an enormous amount of byproduct and excess waste. Nature, however, has figured out how to run pretty well for millions of years, and 3D farms try to replicate these tactics as precisely as possible by balancing the ecosystem. When you run a farm comprised entirely of 1,000 fish, these fish need food, and their waste needs to go somewhere. But what if your farm was still 1,000 “units”, but you had 200 kelp plants, 200 mid-level filter feeders, 200 bottom filter feeders, 200 herbivores, and 200 fish?  The kelp get their fuel from the sun, and any waste (dead stalks, etc.) get eaten by the herbivores. These herbivores keep the kelp in check and provide food for the fish—who, in turn, feed the filter feeders (both directly and indirectly) with their waste. Five different products, all combining to form one cyclical ecosystem… powered entirely by the sun.  Balance.

3D ocean farming is more than just a sustainable method of agriculture, it can actually do a lot to help the planet, from the oceans to the climate. First, as alluded to above, these farms act as de facto kelp forests. This is incredibly important, as kelp forests (and the associated habitat, which sustains an amazing number of species) are disappearing at an alarming rate. Second, 3D farms are amazingly productive. While a 20-acre lima bean farm will yield about 15 tons a year, or 20 acres of peas will produce about 22 tons, a 20-acre 3D farm can produce over 600 tons of greens and five million shellfish annually. A farm the size of Washington state could feed the entire planet—all without using land resources. And third, these farms are uniquely good for the environment, for myriad reasons. They are easier on the environment when it comes to production, exemplifying what we call “zero-input” farming: they require no land, no fresh water, and no fertilizer. Earlier, we mentioned the idea of balance: balance is key for 3D farms. In traditional farming, the focus is often on one lucrative product, leading to an enormous amount of byproduct and excess waste. Nature, however, has figured out how to run pretty well for millions of years, and 3D farms try to replicate these tactics as precisely as possible by balancing the ecosystem. When you run a farm comprised entirely of 1,000 fish, these fish need food, and their waste needs to go somewhere. But what if your farm was still 1,000 “units”, but you had 200 kelp plants, 200 mid-level filter feeders, 200 bottom filter feeders, 200 herbivores, and 200 fish?  The kelp get their fuel from the sun, and any waste (dead stalks, etc.) get eaten by the herbivores. These herbivores keep the kelp in check and provide food for the fish—who, in turn, feed the filter feeders (both directly and indirectly) with their waste. Five different products, all combining to form one cyclical ecosystem… powered entirely by the sun.  Balance.

But this isn’t the only environmental benefit these farms offer. In addition to being zero input, they’re also carbon-negative—going a step beyond not producing any carbon to actually remove carbon and nitrogen from the planet.  Kelp acts as a giant carbon sponge, with some species soaking up five times as much carbon as land-based plants. Additionally, filter feeders (such as mussels, oysters, and the like) can filter 50 gallons of water per day, removing nitrogen and other chemicals that lead to ocean acidification and dead zones.

What can you do?

There is a lot you can do to support these 3D ocean farms that are popping up around the country. First and foremost, you can start eating kelp! While this may sound strange, kelp is actually a delicious and versatile superfood, offering tons of calcium, protein, and other important nutrients. You can check out our other posts on our website (www.oceansourcefarms.com) to see what kinds of things can be done with kelp, and see some recipes!

Beyond this, you can offer direct support to 3D ocean farmers through gestures as small as spreading the word and keeping up with what we’re doing. For example, we are called Ocean Source Farms, and we’re a small kelp collective out of San Francisco, CA. We’re working on putting a 3D ocean farm right off the California coast and putting fresh sea veggies on the culinary landscape, and also make and sell products like seaweed veggie burgers, bull kelp relish, and pickled kelp. Feel free to check out our blog at https://www.oceansourcefarms.com/blog/, or follow us on Twitter (@oceansourcefarm).

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