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'To ensure the future of food, we need to farm the oceans'

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

Phil Cruver is the founder and CEO of KZO Sea Farms which develops offshore mariculture farms for food security. He is also the founder and CEO of RegenBiomass that is developing regenerative biomass farms for producing sustainable products as nature-based solutions for decarbonization. Previously, Phil was the Founder and CEO of Catalina Sea Ranch, the first aquaculture facility in U.S. Federal waters developed six miles offshore California. He was also the founder of five additional start-up companies and recently served as Principal Investigator for over $1.2 million of federally-funded R&D projects. Phil founded International Dynergy, a publicly traded company that installed $50 million of wind turbine generators in Palm Springs, California. In this conversation with Hindol Sengupta, Cruver spoke about the future of food security, the impact of climate change on the supply of food and the global order.

Phil Cruver believes that the oceans need to be farmed for the future of food security.

Hindol Sengupta (HS): In your opinion what kind of food and agricultural shortage/crisis is the world likely to face in the next two decades? Which are the regions most likely to be worst-affected by this crisis? Phil Cruver (PC): The May 20th, 2022, issue of The Economist forecasted a foreboding future of mass hunger and malnutrition from a battered global food system dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Together these two countries produce nearly 30 percent of the world's traded wheat and where some 26 countries around the world get more than half their supplies. Furthermore, these two nations, along with Russia's sanctioned ally Belarus, also supply vast amounts of fertilizer and continued disruption could set off an agricultural time bomb leading to a global food catastrophe.

Food and fertilizer prices were at record highs even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and now a confluence of factors driven by the skyrocketing price of natural gas is setting a perfect storm for food scarcity. What no country can do without is food and no country can grow sufficient food without fertilizer. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East are facing famine and malnutrition. About 300 million people in Africa currently suffer from hunger and the UN has warned that the conflict in Ukraine could make an additional 47 million people food insecure in 2022.

HS: How does one address this upcoming crisis, and where do you think your work fits into trying to address this vital problem? PC: KZO Sea Farms Africa was formed to develop a Seaplant (our terminology for seaweed) and Shellfish Mariculture Industry in ocean waters offshore African coastal nations for mitigating food shortages and malnutrition while creating jobs. In addition to feeding Africans, we intend to establish export markets for nutritious and sustainable seafood produced from pristine African offshore ocean waters. Consider that seaplants have 92 of the 102 essential minerals required for strengthening human immune systems for healthy living. They are anti-inflammatory, improve thyroid functions and have 28 times more iron than liver. Mussels are one of the planet's most perfect foods. They are extremely high in protein, calcium and iron, an excellent source of selenium and Vitamin 12, and a super source of zinc and folic acid, while low in fat and calories.

Africa has 18,950 miles of coastline and its 38 coastal nations have massive Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that are ideal for Offshore mariculture to help feed their growing populations. For example, Gabon with a projected population of 2.37 million people by 2025 would require about 48,000 acres of offshore mariculture production of seaplants and mussels to feed the entire country. This would be less than 0.1 per cent of Gabon's total EZZ aside the 26 per cent dedicated for Marine Protected Areas.

“With Earth’s burgeoning human populations to feed, we must turn to the sea with new understanding and new technology,” Cousteau presciently predicted in his 1973 television show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, 'We need to farm it as we farm the land'.” I agree that we must turn to the sea with new technologies, but I disagree with farming the sea as we have the land using polluting petrochemicals stimulants for increasing yields with lower nutritional quality.

HS: For the lay reader, please explain how regenerative biofarms are different from ordinary farms or even organic farms? PC: Biofarming is a chemical free method of farming that focuses on improving microbiology as a way of increasing plant growth and yield. We are developing an innovative technology whereby seaplant biomass can be converted into hydrochar with Hydrothermal Carbonization (HTC) to serve as a soil amendment for improving soil microbiology and a substitution for fertilizer.

The liquid urea, which is produced during the HTC process, contains 46 per cent nitrogen which is the primary ingredient in fertilizer. Seaplant hydrochar would also lower the environmental cost of fossil-based nitrogen and supplement dwindling global phosphate reserves. Furthermore, seaplants provide beneficial ecosystem services, do not require precious freshwater or land usage, and are a renewable resource not requiring polluting fertilizers. Seaplants also absorb CO2 for mitigating ocean acidification - the evil twin of climate change. Seaplant fertilizer, produced with HTC, has the potential to help foster a new ‘Green Revolution’ for fighting famine and malnutrition throughout the African continent.

HS: Tell us about your California experiment - how did it begin? And what learnings have you achieved through it?

PC: My California offshore mariculture experiment started in 2012 when I founded Catalina Sea Ranch and secured the first offshore aquaculture permit in US Federal waters from the US Army Corps of Engineers. The California Coastal Commission has the right to determine if the permit is consistent with the Coastal Zone Act, which took another two years, but remarkably the project received unanimous approval. I raised about $6 million of capital from individual investors, another $2 million in debt, $1.2 million in Federal R&D contracts, and about $1 million in grants. We needed another $5 million to scale operations but couldn't raise the requisite institutional capital as the regulatory compliance costs exceeded $500,000 annually, which was unsustainable. There is a saying that 'pioneers get the arrows' and pioneering a new industry in highly regulated California was a risk that taught valuable lessons. We are applying lessons learned to our offshore mariculture ventures underway in Africa and the Caribbean with the development of responsible regulations based upon science and not personal bias and conjecture.

My California 'Timber & Carbon Farming' experiment began in April 2022 with the planting of 800 Paulownia trees as a pilot project in Southern California funded by a USDA grant. This pilot project is showcasing the potential of Timber & Carbon Farming as a regenerative and resilient new green industry. The farms are developed with Paulownia which are the fastest growing trees on the planet reaching 20 feet in the first year and can be harvested for timber in the fifth year. Furthermore, Paulownia trees are regenerative so that when the trees are cut for harvesting, they will continue growing back for harvesting every five years. Moreover, because Paulownia trees grow so fast, they sequester massive amounts of CO2 estimated at 5 to 10 times that of other trees for carbon farming.

HS: You have suggested that regenerative biofarms could be effective in Africa and India? Why especially these regions?

PC: The African continent is currently home to approximately 1.3 billion people with an estimated population growth rate of 2.7 percent which is more than double that of South Asia and triple that of Latin America. The United Nations projects that by 2050, Africa’s population will nearly double to 2.5 billion people, and by 2100 triple to 3.8 billion. By the end of this century, one-third of the people on the planet will be African and if the demographics become destiny, Africa is poised to be the center of global affairs within a generation. Of the 10 countries in the world with the largest annual net loss of forested area, six are in Africa which loses an average of 40,000 square kilometers of its forests annually. There are millions of acres of deforested lands in Africa that could be developed as timber and carbon farms for producing valuable commercial timber while also curbing climate change by sequestering CO2.

India's 1.38 billion people represent 17 per cent of the world's population and extreme weather this year is overflowing granaries and raising food-security concerns. Rice could emerge as the next challenge for global food supply as India is by far the world’s biggest exporter at 40 per cent and the government has already curbed wheat and sugar exports to safeguard food security and control local prices. India has only 4 per cent of the world's freshwater resources and its ongoing water crisis affects hundreds of millions of people each year. Furthermore, by 2050, its land-to-population ratio will have declined fourfold, and India will be amongst the most land-scarce countries in the world. Offshore mariculture is the next frontier for India for feeding its population given that it has a 7,500-kilometer coastline.

HS: In India, you are particularly excited about the opportunities in bamboo - why?

PC: Bamboo is a regenerative grass that can be grown on marginal lands to produce valuable commercial products including renewable biofuels, sustainable pulp for paper products, textiles, and wood products. As the fastest growing plant on the planet, bamboo also has the potential for afforestation projects and producing carbon credits for combating climate change. Bamboo forests within India occupy about 35 million acres and despite having the largest area under bamboo in the world, India contributes only 4 per cent share of the global market attributed to low productivity compared to China that dominates what is forecasted to become a $100 billion bamboo industry during this decade. There is a timely opportunity for India to take a leadership role by developing a sustainable, secure, and resilient supply chain for supplanting China’s dominance over the global bamboo export market.

HS:. Describe to us what your ideal world would look like in terms of your line of work, that is, food security and its future.

PC: Africa's population is growing exponentially, and the continent cannot continue to import and produce proteins in an unsustainable manner. The biomass in the ocean is concentrated at the base of the pyramid and every step up 10 per cent of the biomass is lost. As we move up the food web to feed higher-trophic fish and land animals, we are losing protein and value while spending more energy for less protein.

Mariculture, the cultivation of marine organisms in their natural habitats for commercial purposes, has the potential to revive the natural majesty and abundance of the oceans. In Africa, millions of people obtain their dietary animal protein, micronutrients, and essential fatty acids from fish stocks as a source of food and nutrition. Offshore mariculture reduces reliance on threatened wild fishery resources while softening any environmental footprint because the seas are so vast.

Image of what submersible farming looks like, courtesy Phil Cruver.

Since tropical seas surround most of the nations where the billions of people will be suffering from acute hunger live, Offshore mariculture offers a solution to supplement traditional agriculture. There are numerous advantages to farming in the open ocean environment including increased cleaner water flow and decreased reliance on shore-based infrastructure with fewer user conflicts by minimizing territorial competition.

Co-cultivation of sustainable shellfish and seaplants is the noncontroversial and appropriate approach for large-scale offshore mariculture to feed the future while concurrently sequestering carbon and nitrogen from coastal ecosystems. With the ascendancy of offshore mariculture, we believe a major opportunity is emerging for the mass-production of an affordable and utilitarian submersible offshore farming platform since destructive hurricanes and typhoons in tropical regions will be increasing with climate change.

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