Sandeep [00:00:36] You're listening to Food by Design an IDEO podcast, where we talk to the people who are building the food systems will need in the future, right now. We go where the questions are looking at the gaps in the current systems and share what we learn all to find out what's next. We're here to start the conversations that can help make better food systems for everyone of us. I'm your host, Sandeep Pahuja.
Sandeep [00:01:06] So far in this series, we spent most of our time thinking about agriculture, how food is farmed, meat is raised, how it ends up on our plates and what we do to dispose of it, or in the case of our last episode, how we can find more creative uses for our food before wasting it. But when it comes to emissions, there's the other huge CO2 problem, the one that affects our oceans and bodies of water around the globe: Ocean acidification. Our warming planet means that not only are our water levels rising, but our oceans are becoming more acidic and that is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems around the world. The Earth's alarm system is flashing red and largely we're ignoring it.
[00:01:49] There's one extremely exciting, delicious sea vegetable that might be a powerful lever for slowing down our warming oceans. A potential answer to a boatload of environmental and economic problems. Kelp. Kelp. That's right. Kelp! It's a type of seaweed. And until I researched this episode, I was really only familiar with eating seaweed from having a wakame salad or kimbap or a piece of sushi wrapped in it. I really enjoy the crunch of those dried seaweed snack sheets that the hint of toasted sesame oil. Anyway, kelp is from the same family of seaweed, but it's just a little bit different. To understand why we have high hopes for kelp and its role in combating climate change, we have to start with a Maine lobsterman.
Bob [00:02:37] Lobsterman are pretty creative and there's always a problem to solve.
Sandeep [00:02:42] Bob Baine's is a lobsterman from Spruce Head, Maine. He's 63 years old and has been fishing for over 40 years. In that time, he's seen the lobster population changed dramatically.
Bob [00:02:53] I started in '82. And the historical average back then was probably 30 million pounds of lobsters, maybe 40. Now for the last six, seven years, we've been well over 100 million, 125 million pounds of lobsters.
Sandeep [00:03:08] That sounds like good news, right? Lots of lobstahs. But there's another trend that's not so promising. Warming waters caused by climate change. The Gulf of Maine has warmed three times faster than the global average, faster than 99 percent of oceans on this planet. As the Gulf gets warmer, the lobsters are moving north to colder temperatures. The catch in 2019 was down 40 percent from the year before, and lobstermen like Bob are taking notice.
Bob [00:03:34] Since I've been fishing, the winners have changed tremendously. The harbor is used to freeze up back in the 70s and even into the 80s. Now the harbors don't freeze up anymore.
Sandeep [00:03:43] As the lobster population moves up the coast, lobstermen like Bob might see their livelihoods go with it. And this is where kelp comes in. And a woman named Bri Warner.
Bri [00:03:52] Food is a decision we make three times a day or more if we're snackers. And I'm a constant snacker, so I'm making the decision every time I eat about what I'm eating and how I'm eating it.
Sandeep [00:04:03] Bri grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where the coal mining industry used to dominate. That started her on a career path focused on economic development. She was in the foreign service working in Central in West Africa after she fell in love with a Mainer and moved to the Portland area. She started a bakery that only employed refugees. They apparently had great tagine hand pies. She then turned her eyes to the water.
Bri [00:04:26] I then started economic development programing for an organization focused on island and coastal sustainability. And the first thing we have to look at is food, because that's what we're relying on here with that lobster. So how do we diversify the industry?
Sandeep [00:04:37] Mainers know the risk of relying too much on one natural resource. For example, back in the 90s, the town of Millinocket was home to a paper mill that employed nearly the entire town. The paper mill printed about 16 percent of newsprint in the country at the time. Bri says the town of Millinocket had the highest GDP in the nation.
Bri [00:04:56] Because you could walk out of high school and make $50,000 at the mill across the street, like right across the street. And now it's one of the poorest counties in the country. And while we are in a kind of boom right now on the coast of Maine and lobsters thriving and people are doing fairly well, just a few more degrees in the water and we're looking at a very different time.
Sandeep [00:05:20] Some of the other primary industries in Maine besides fishing are agriculture, shipbuilding, health care and tourism. And bring us some thoughts on that last one.
Bri [00:05:28] What are you going to do? Are you going to put a bunch of fishermen behind hotel desks? Like, that's a great way to kill Maine tourism right away? I'll just tell you that.
Sandeep [00:05:36] Looking around for options. Bri saw the tide turning to kelp.
Bri [00:05:42] Seaweed is very easy to grow. It's pretty cheap to grow. It's grown in the winter, which is opposite the lobster season. So it's kind of a perfect place for fishermen to get involved. You know, 98 percent of the seaweed that we eat in America is actually imported, dried from Asia, which is crazy when you look at from Maine and you see this beautiful, clean, wonderful water. We have this incredibly qualified workforce. We have, you know, so much space and we're importing seaweed from Asia.
Sandeep [00:06:11] And right there, a plan was hatched. Help lobsterman farm kelp in their off season. This would be the start of a new income stream for them. Before the lobster population crashes in many cases where you need to redesign a system that's failing. Creating new synergies is key. How can you create a new system that lines up everyone's incentives? In this case, Bri and other kelp farmers needed boats and crews to get it all harvested in the spring. And as lobster head north to colder waters, what does Maine have an excess of come spring lobstermen and their boats and their crews? It's an all around Win-Win. Everyone's incentives reinforce one another, and this symbiotic relationship makes the whole system that much stronger as a result.
Sandeep [00:07:04] So back to Bri. She linked up with the company in Maine experimenting with farming kelp commercially. She eventually became their CEO and rebranded the company Atlantic Sea Farms. But Bri knew even if they had the lobstermen to help them farm the kelp, she still had to figure out how to get it to market.
Bri [00:07:22] You can't just pull kelp out of the water and sell it. Like up. Here's your cow. Five pounds, five dollars. Right leg. Is that how it works? You really have to process it. You have to put a lot into it. We can produce the seeds, get them to farm, buy everything. They grow back, and then we can do the work of processing it. Marketing it. Selling it. And in turn, getting more fishermen in the water.
Sandeep [00:07:42] On a chilly December day, Bri walks us through the wing of their facility in Saco, Maine.
Bri [00:07:46] We're at the end of our nursery season, so all of the baby camps will go out to the ocean by Friday. So it's a very exciting time for us.
Sandeep [00:07:53] The room is filled with giant tanks of seawater. In each of them is what looks like giant spools of golden thread. But it's not thread. It's actually thousands of tiny baby kelps attached to a string wrapped around a PVC pipe.
Bri [00:08:06] They live on that string and we baby them. We give them twelve hours, like twelve hours a night. We change their tanks constantly. We tell them we love them. We play the music. I'm not going to lie. Would you do that? Sometimes I try to do it when nobody's looking like I lean over and be like, hi babies.
Sandeep [00:08:24] Come springtime when the kelp is harvested, this whole operation will go into production mode.
Bri [00:08:30] We wash all of our seaweed and then send it for a shredder and blanch it all in here. And it's in the freezer within 24 hours. So we just talk about it from farm to freezer before the sun goes down.
Sandeep [00:08:41] Blanching the kelp preserves that deep green color without having to use the dyes you would find in most seaweed that you eat at a restaurant. Yep. You heard that right. Apparently, much of the seaweed served in restaurants, in those Japanese seaweed salads, for instance, are actually dyed.
Bri [00:08:56] It's imported from Asia, dried. Then they rehydrate it and then they add yellow-5 and blue-1 to it, like the stuff that's a Mountain Dew.
Sandeep [00:09:05] A few years ago, Atlantic Sea Farms produced 40,000 pounds of kelp.
Bri [00:09:09] This year we have seeds out for about 600,000 pounds. We went from three fishermen that we worked with to now 24 this year. So that's 24 people that are going to be making an income in the off season. And it's a pretty substantial income to.
Sandeep [00:09:24] Income for lots of lobster fishermen. Side note: for those of you wondering, like I was, if there's a good gender neutral version of the term lobsterman, it appears that in Maine most people prefer fishermen or lobstermen, regardless of their gender identity.
Sandeep [00:09:39] But back to Bob. This was his first year as a kelp farmer in the off season. He says that other lobstermen had some skepticism about this whole seaweed growing thing.
Bob [00:09:49] Lobstermen notoriously think they own the bottle. And I can be classified in that group as well. But the beauty of growing kelp is it's in the opposite season of the lobster season. You start seeding the long lines in mid-October maybe, or November, and it grows all winter into the spring and then you harvest in the late spring. And that's before the lobster season starts.
Sandeep [00:10:21] It was too windy to get out on the water, but Bob took us out to his shop where he has drawings of how his kelp farm is laid out.
Bob [00:10:29] The kelp farm compared to a land farm is much different. I mean, we're three dimensional in the water, you know, 50 feet of water. We got wind. We got tide. We've got storms.
Sandeep [00:10:42] Bob's kelp farm is a four acre site longer than it is wide, with rows of ropes that the kelp is growing on seven feet down. He's been trying to figure out a way to keep all the lines of kelp from getting tangled with one another.
Bob [00:10:55] I'll put the cross lines in which will stabilize. It'll still sway somewhat. You wanted it to. Because the tie goes up and down. We have a 10 foot tide roughly. So it's going up and down, side to side. It's a spiderweb is what it is.
Sandeep [00:11:09] Bob says you can call him a lobster fisherman or you can call him a farmer. He doesn't care what you call him. As long as he can make a living doing it.
Bob [00:11:17] There'll still be a lobster fishery. Even the scientists say that to still be a lobster fishery as things warm. But not to the degree we have now. But then there'll be other species possibly to harvest. So it's all about adapting. And in any industry, if you don't adapt, you're left behind. And before you know it, you're out of business.
Sandeep [00:11:41] Adaptation can lead to survival. Businesses that diversify and adapt quickly are able to weather storms significantly better than others. And from a systems lens, this is no surprise. Adaptability makes for a more resilient system which increases the chance of survival if there are any points of failure. Beyond the economic winds that kelp farming could offer Maine fishermen. There's yet another benefit of kelp. And it's an even bigger game changer for the lobstermen in Maine, potentially shifting the very thing that's causing their problem in the first place, climate change. That brings us to Dr Nichole Price.
Nichole [00:12:21] My name is Nichole Price. I'm a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences.
Sandeep [00:12:26] Nichole's story starts in the Japanese island of Okinawa. Nichole was there for a workshop about how to replenish baby coral on reefs after devastation like bleaching, for example. She'd been doing research on beneficial seaweeds that are present on the reefs, some of which are edible. She noticed the surprising trend in what made the seaweed grow.
Nichole [00:12:46] The result that we got time and time again was that those fleshy and sometimes edible species were getting fertilized by extra carbon dioxide in our seawater tanks. Not only that, but they were growing so fast that we had to keep feeding them with extra carbon dioxide to just maintain our treatments. So then you start to think about the effectiveness of seaweed as a sponge for that extra carbon dioxide in seawater.
Sandeep [00:13:17] While Nichole was at the Okinawa workshop, she found herself absent mindedly looking out the window and she noticed something out in the ocean. In artisanal seaweed farm just up the shore from the conference center, these farms were harvesting mozuku, a popular algae used in Japanese cuisine and grown only on the shores of Okinawa.
Nichole [00:13:34] And I started being curious about whether or not we could harness the power of seaweed to absorb carbon dioxide in a meaningful way.
Sandeep [00:13:43] This one idea ended up shifting Nichole's life. It led her to Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, to work with the Center for Seafood Solutions at the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences. Nichole researches the eco physiology of seaweeds and their role in cycling carbon. She was able to collaborate with Atlantic Sea Farms and put her oceanographic equipment smack dab in the middle of their kelp.
Nichole [00:14:08] And what this equipment was able to do is measure things like seawater, pH, seawater, oxygen content, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the seawater, and then salinity and temperature.
Sandeep [00:14:22] The goal is to figure out just how much CO2 that kelp might be gobbling up.
Nichole [00:14:26] Kelp is grown at about seven feet depth. So that's where the instruments were suspended as well. So they're kind of getting waved over by the flowing kelp. And then we put another set of the same exact instruments outside of the kelp farm as a sort of control to say what would be the difference between these two.
Sandeep [00:14:46] Nichole and her team did these experiments during three different seasons. In every experiment, they found that the levels of carbon dioxide inside the kelp farm was significantly lower than that of the control group.
Nichole [00:14:58] Imagine that when you put the seeded line out on the farm, the line just looks kind of fuzzy and brown because it has millions of baby kelp on it. You can barely see them with your naked eye. And by the end of the six months that they've been growing on the farm, the kelps' fronds are as long as your bedroom is wide. They're quite large. And so we could see every year the depletion of carbon dioxide from the seawater, from that primary production process. This is not that shocking, really. I mean, it's exactly what trees do for our air. It's just now we're beginning to see that the possibility of ocean rainforests doing what we need in terms of remediating those conditions is measurable.
Sandeep [00:15:47] The seaweed is not only absorbing CO2, it's also mitigating the effects of ocean acidification. We focus a lot on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but they're just as big of a problem when they end up in the ocean.
Nichole [00:15:59] So ocean acidification is a process where the surface waters of the ocean absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Sandeep [00:16:07] This absorption causes a chemical reaction that makes the seawater more acidic.
Nichole [00:16:12] And so while we don't expect our oceans to turn into lemon juice, persay, not quite that acidic, they're going from a level where they were at historically, which was certainly more basic and towards a P.H. level of 8.4 pre-industrial 8.0 and headed towards 7.6 In the next 50 to 100 years. Those sound like pretty small numbers and maybe not so worrisome. But if you realize that they're on the same sort of logarithmic scale that earthquakes are on, then you realize that even a shift of point for units is cataclysmic for the organisms that are experiencing that shift.
Sandeep [00:16:57] So with earthquakes, a simple rule of thumb is that for every point three increase in magnitude, the shaking will double. And that's why ocean acidification is so disastrous for mussels and oysters. As seawater pH drops down to a more neutral level, it weakens and degrades their protective shells. It can even get to a point where their hard shells dissolve.
Nichole [00:17:20] That's really worrisome. If you're growing mussels, oysters. If you're harvesting clams, there's a whole host of especially the bivalves species up and down the coast of Maine that we're worried about how they will fare in a future warmer, more acidic ocean.
Sandeep [00:17:39] Here again, kelp comes to the rescue. Nichole and her team also did an experiment where they put rope grown mussels inside of a kelp farm. They found that the kelp farm had a halo effect that she calls it. The mussels grown with the kelp, had thicker and stronger shells and produced more meat mass than the mussels grown outside the kelp farm.
Nichole [00:17:58] So it seemed like that theoretical impact of kelp on mussels via changing the chemistry of the seawater was realized, which was really exciting to us and very exciting to people who were growing mussels in the area. Exciting enough that they saw value in growing kelp and mussels together and have been some of the early adopters of this strategy.
Sandeep [00:18:24] When designing systems, one thing to think about is the knock on effects. A knock on effect is a secondary, indirect, or cumulative effect. What will happen after one decision is made? How will this affect the next part of the system? In this case, growing kelp has positive knock on effects for many other parts of our food system. Remember how seaweed is a sponge for carbon in the production of kelp? Some seaweed gets sloughed off and can end up floating down into deep, deep ocean waters where it effectively stores carbon at the bottom of the ocean. Here's another example of a knock on effect. Some studies are showing that feeding cows a diet of kelp suppresses methane emissions in their burps by 50 percent. So with all this kelpy goodness, you're probably thinking, why aren't there kelp farms going up and down the eastern seaboard if there's so much good about kelp? Why isn't it everywhere?
Nichole [00:19:20] There's still the ick factor here with seaweed. And so we there's an uphill push, an uphill battle to change that perception that it will smell the worry that people will be operating on boats at very early hours or very late hours and disrupting other uses of the working waterfront.
Sandeep [00:19:42] Which brings us back to Bri Warner at Atlantic Sea Farms. And that seaweed salad that I tasted at the beginning of the episode, which they make in order for there to be meaningful change and to make this industry profitable. Bri knows that they need to create a market for locally grown dye free kelp and seaweed products. Customers have to want the stuff, which means not only converting people who already eat seaweed, but also getting unfamiliar customers excited about trying something new.
Bri [00:20:10] They're trying to produce products that are appealing to everybody. Products that don't taste like fish. Right. And we always call it passing the low tide test. Does it taste like low tide? Does that we're not going to put it out there.
Sandeep [00:20:24] Atlantic Sea Farms is now making several different products with kelp aimed at making it more appealing to people who don't think they'd like seaweed.
Bri [00:20:31] And we really want to make this more like a green bean. So ready, cut kelp, which is like a blanched pure kelp, is used by food service customers on salads, in bowls, in salad dressings and smoothies because it tastes just like a green vegetable, not like an ocean vegetable. So that's really what we're trying to do with this, is make it really approachable.
Sandeep [00:20:54] Dear listener, take two bites of seaweed and you've got all the omega 3s you need for the day. It's the most calcium rich food on the planet and has almost as much potassium as a banana. And it tastes great in a green smoothie. For all the reasons we've talked about, kelp is ready for its mainstream moment. Even the celebrated chef and restaurant tour, Dave Chang is stumping for seaweed, putting it at the center of a bowl he developed with Sweetgreen earlier this year. Here's an ad they made with three ocean themed puppets.
Puppet 1 [00:21:25] What's on the menu? All celebrated chef from the restaurant.
Dave Chang [00:21:29] So I'm creating a bowl of sweet green and I'm using kelp.
Puppet 2 [00:21:32] That's weed. He's feeding us weed.
Dave Chang [00:21:35] Seaweed. Kelp is seaweed. And farming reduces carbon in the oceans and the atmosphere.
Puppet 1 [00:21:40] David, if I may, what you're trying to say is that by eating your kelp, we are basically saving the world with our model.
Dave Chang [00:21:49] You could say that.
Puppet 1 [00:21:50] I did say that. We're heroes.
Puppet 2 [00:21:53] You're a hero.
Puppet 1 [00:21:53] Perhaps I'm the hero?
Sandeep [00:21:56] Actually, seaweed could be the hero. It's an $11.2 billion dollar industry globally and one of the fastest growing industries in the world, that nine percent a year. Bri says the moment is ripe for Americans to be eating even more of it.
Bri [00:22:11] We're forging a totally new way of thinking about seaweed. We need to make sure that this is really working from a business perspective. And for now it is. And we're trying to do it in a way that does work for everyone so that I can say in four or five, six years, like, hey, everybody's eating kelp and I have 60 farmers working to plant kelp. And like, we need to make sure that everything that we do is right by the farmers that we request because there's no one else they can sell it to.
Sandeep [00:22:36] So while I certainly was not a big kelp evangelist before Bob, Bri, and Nichole have made me want to change that. Kelp is really freaking cool. I cannot wait for it to start showing up at my local grocery store.
Sandeep [00:22:48] Remember that idea of a knock on effect here we have an existing industry, lobstering, that is showing signs of major struggle that could be supported by farming a new crop in its off season. A crop that happens to be excellent for you is incredible at sucking up CO2 and is reducing ocean acidification. Sign me up. It's a great example of the new kind of food system that we need to design today.
Sandeep [00:23:18] So here's the design opportunity how might we unlock kelp's full potential to help us combat climate change?
Sandeep [00:23:27] If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions. Visit ideo.com/food. And help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone. Thanks for listening. If you learn something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend. And if you didn't learn something, are you sure you were even listening? You can really help by leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know, the algorithms love that.
Sandeep [00:24:00] I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by design. The show was created by Sarah Codraro and me. Today's episode was produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Tina Antolini and Julia Scott. Tina recorded all of our interviews. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Jaclyn Robidoux and Sarah Rich.