Meeting the current dietary requirements of the world’s population presents the global food system with significant challenges. Food production systems are connected to a range of environmental challenges; material contributions to greenhouse gas inventories (particularly methane), freshwater contamination, deforestation and soil degradation to name a few. Even with the impact the food system has on the environment, it also leaves 690 million people malnourished every day,1 yet there is demand for more food to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly wealthy population.
It is not surprising that these challenges have created a need to urgently transform traditional production systems. The emergence of disruptive technologies has attracted significant interest and investment from a range of commercial and philanthropic organizations, most notably US$65.4 billion of venture capital funding invested in disruptive agri and food technology over the last decade.2
Much of this investment has been about addressing the challenges in land-based agriculture. This has included alternative proteins and novel foods (responding to the environmental and ethical questions of having animals in the food system), drone and robot-based automation (improving efficiency and increasing chemical application accuracy), gene-editing solutions (to lift farm system resilience), as well as digital farm management tools, products using waste food and other bio-based by-products, biological technologies to replace chemicals and fertilizers, and water technologies.
One area of the food system that has not received as much investment focus is the ocean – the blue larder.
As land available for growing food becomes more constrained, there is little doubt that the ocean will become a more significant contributor to the overall global food supply. However, this does not mean that additional protein is sourced by placing further pressure on heavily utilized wild fisheries. A new ocean food economy will likely emerge geared towards providing more sustainable food to the world.
So, what might the food sourced from the ocean be and how might it be farmed?
It is anticipated that the production of fish and seafood from aquaculture (which now represents around 46 percent of total world fish and seafood production3) will become the key source for food fish moving forward. Currently, most aquaculture production globally is conducted either inland or in inshore waters. Growth will likely require an acceleration of deep ocean aquaculture with much of the farming taking place beyond the boundaries of national exclusive economic areas.
Such activity is unlocked by automated farms that can spend months, even years, in deep water optimal growing conditions for fish and use minimal inputs. They avoid the environmental challenges linked to fixed farm locations. While this can present an opportunity to grow more food, it is expected that the challenges of having large numbers of robotic fish farms circulating within the oceans will require new treaties to define management systems to protect economic and environmental interests.
The growth in demand for plant-based foods can provide the opportunity to exponentially expand farming of the ocean’s plants and algae. Kelp, seaweeds and other sea vegetables offer consumers high nutrient density products with a variety of taste and texture experiences. These plants can also sequester significant carbon compared to land-based plants, creating opportunities for farmers to develop business models that can deliver revenue from both food and carbon farming. Current research also suggests seaweeds may have the potential to be used as a supplement in animal feed, which could significantly reduce methane emissions from ruminant animals.
There is also work being done to explore whether controlled cropping farming systems being developed to localize fresh produce production around the world can be translated into units that can be anchored under the ocean off the coast of the world’s major city. Locating the facilities under the ocean provides consistent temperatures for growing and can use desalination technology to create the fresh water the system needs. While this is some way off, it does offer to lift the sustainability of horticulture production and it could reduce the energy needed to generate the process heat required for plants to grow, while wave generation could also be used to power the system lights.
Utilizing less technology, but equally important is business model innovation that connects traditional artisan fishers in villages around the world to higher value market opportunities, so that they can continue to support their families and their communities to sustain traditional ways of life. While wild harvest fishing has placed pressure on many fish stocks, it has generally not been the traditional fishers that are behind this degradation. However, the impact for these communities of losing their fishing fleets can be catastrophic, as well as have negative environmental impacts. Finding ways to utilize digital technology to connect traditional fishers and their provenance stories to high end restaurants looking for storied fresh food can be critical to creating a sustainable economic future for these people.
The ocean is expected to become ever more critical to the global food system. There are a wide range of opportunities that can enable the diversification of farming activities in the ocean, however more investment is needed to develop the technology to unlock these opportunities. Having seen a massive wave of funding rush into land-based agriculture, it is expected that the need to transition to a more sustainable food system will require another wave of investment to realize the potential inherent in ocean farming.