Ocean farming isn’t just about food. It’s about transforming an entire workforce, transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers. My job has never been to save the seas; it’s to figure out how the seas can save us. I say that because millions of years ago mother nature created two technologies designed to mitigate our harm: shellfish and seaweeds. Oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, pulling nitrogen—the cause of our oceans’ spreading dead zones—from the water column. Our farmed kelp, called the Sequoia of the sea, soaks up five times more carbon than land based plants. Seaweeds could be a powerful source of zero-input biofuel; feasibility studies suggest we might produce 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre—that’s a 30 times higher yield than soybeans and five times more than corn. According to the Department of Energy, if you were to take a network of our farms equaling half the size of the state of Maine, you could replace all the oil in the United States.

Our farms function as storm-surge protectors, breaking up wave action to reduce the impact of hurricanes and rising tides. And they serve as artificial reefs, attracting more than 150 species of aquatic life. Sea horses, striped bass and grey seals come to eat, hide, and thrive on our farms. My farm used to be a barren patch of ocean, now it’s a flourishing ecosystem. As fishermen, we’re no longer pillagers, hunting the last fish. We are a new generation of climate farmers who have joined the fight to restore our planet. We’re trying to break down the seawalls that separate our land-based and ocean-based food systems. Even the best land-based farms pollute, sending nitrogen into our waterways, so we use our kelp to capture that nitrogen, turn it into liquid fertilizers, and send it back to organic farmers to grow their wonderful vegetables. When the nitrogen then runs back into Long Island Sound, we capture it again.

We are also working on new forms of livestock feeds. For example, there’s exciting—though still preliminary—research that suggests adding algae to diets could reduce methane output in cattle by up to 90%. The idea is to build a bridge between land and sea in order to close the loop between our food systems. Too often our thinking stops at the water’s edge. A bridge is needed.

The blue-green economy

Our goal is to build a just foundation for the blue-green economy. Saving the seas is not enough. There is 40% unemployment in my hometown. I wouldn’t be doing this work unless it created jobs for my people, unless it opened up new opportunities for the three billion folks who depend on our oceans to make a living.

Our old economy is crumbling. I can’t get cell service in half of the country, let alone decent health care or a healthy meal. The old economy is built on the arrogance of growth at all costs, profiting from pollution, and the refusal to share economic gains with 99% of Americans. But out of the ashes of the old economy, together we are building something new based on new-economy principles of collaboration, community-driven innovation, shared profits, and meeting social needs. Because ocean agriculture is still in its infancy, we have the unprecedented opportunity to build a model from scratch, to build from the bottom up an economy that works for everyone, not just a few. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of industrial agriculture and aquaculture. This is our chance to do food right.

We addressed the first question of farm replication and scale, not by patenting or franchising—those are tools of the old economy—but by open-sourcing our farming model so that anybody with 20 acres and a boat and $30,000 can start his or her own farm. One of our new farmers is a third-generation lobsterman who was unemployed because climate change had pushed lobsters northward. We got him up and running, growing and selling the first year. Among our other farmers are former Alaskan salmon fishermen, an Iraq war veteran, and a Latino family whose ancestors were driven off their farmlands in Mexico. We replicate and scale by specifically designing our farms to require low capital costs and minimal skills. We seek simplicity not complexity. We believe that replication is driven by setting low barriers to entry so that people from all walks of life can grow and prosper with us. At the same time our farmers receive startup grants, access to free seed, gear donated by Patagonia, and two years of free consulting from GreenWave. What is most important, we guarantee to purchase 80% of their crops for the first five years at triple the market rate.

We intend to create stable and secure markets that give our beginning farmers time to learn the trade and to scale up their farms. They keep farming because they know they’ll get paid well for what they grow. Our vision is hundreds of small-scale ocean farms dotting our coastlines, surrounded by conservation zones. Imagine a Napa valley of ocean terroirs dotting out coastlines.

We envision 3D farms embedded in wind farms, harvesting not only wind but also food, fuel and fertilizers. We envision using shuttered coal plants—like the one closing in Bridgeport, Connecticut—for processing animal feed and salt. We want to repurpose the fossil-fuel and fishing industries so that they will protect rather than destroy our oceans.

Getting out of the boutique food economy and recreating an industry

The second question is how to build the infrastructure needed to ensure that ocean farmers and communities will reap the rewards of the blue-green economy. For too long, farmers and fishermen have been caught in the beggar’s game of selling raw commodities while others soak up the profits; too many of us are locked in the boutique food economy, selling as CSAs and at farmers markets, with the majority of us not making an adequate living and having to hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet. But now, in our unexplored oceans we have a chance to plan ahead and to build an infrastructure in the right way. One of our new farmers, a 65-year-old fisherman, whose family has fished in Rhode Island for 300 years, put it this way: “The last thing we want to do with 3D farming is re-create the fishing industry.”

Instead of repeating history we’re building infrastructure from seed-to-harvest-to-market. We’re starting nonprofit hatcheries so that our farmers can access low-cost seed. We’re creating ocean seed banks so that the Monsantos of the world can’t privatize the source of our food and livelihoods. We cap the price of a sublease at $50 an acre per year so that low-income ocean farmers can access property. But by “property” we do not mean privatization. Our farmers don’t own their patch of ocean; they own only the right to grow shellfish and seaweeds there, which means that anyone can boat, fish, or swim on their farms. I own the process of farming but not the property, and this keeps my farm as shared community space. We’re also building in levers of community control. Leases are up for review every five years so that if I’m farming unsustainably, my rights can be revoked.

At the same time, we’re building the country’s first farmer-owned seafood hub, which is not only a place to process, package and ship the raw commodities we raise but also a space to leverage the unique qualities of our seaweeds. The power of kelp is that it’s not just food; there is a whole range of products we can produce that meet environmental and social needs: organic fertilizers, new livestock feeds, kelp biofuels, and even medicine. With thousands of yet undiscovered ocean plants, farmers and scientists can join together to discover and grow new forms of medicine.

Pushing injustice off the table

If we provide our communities with the right mix of low-cost, open-source infrastructure, our hub will become an engine for job creation and the basis for inventing new industries. It will also be an engine for food justice, a place where we embed good jobs, food access, and nutrition into the structure of ocean agriculture. This means, for example, working with local grassroots groups like CitySeed in New Haven, Connecticut, to ensure that low-income folks can use food stamps to carry double the value at our Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) and our Beyond Fish retail store. It also means using our hub as a hiring hall where local workers can find jobs on our farms, in our startups, and in our kitchens. If you come to the hub for a job, don’t bring your resumé. We don’t care if you are a former felon or an undocumented immigrant; we’re going to put you to work.

The final challenge is how to re-arrange the relationships between those of us who produce food and those of us who buy it. Failure would be to recreate the power dynamics of the old economy. Just as we need to re-arrange what’s on our dinner plates by moving ocean greens to the center, we need to move farmers, food workers, communities, and protection of the planet to the center of our plate, and push the destructive, unjust old economy off the table. We’re putting farmers and buyers on equal footing by negotiating with institutions to guarantee forward contracts so that we get paid before we grow, and if our crops fail, then both the farmer and the buyer share the loss. It’s time for everyone to share the risk in the risky business of growing food in the era of climate change and globalization.

The relationship between farmer and buyer has to go even deeper. Reformatting the food system is going to be costly. It’s going to be complex. Simply using purchasing power will not be enough. Anchor institutions such as hospitals, universities, wholesalers, and retailers have a new role, a new set of responsibilities in the new economy. They have a duty to invest aggressively in our farmers, our infrastructure and our communities. This involves donating a portion of their profits and their endowment to building hatcheries, seafood hubs, logistical and transport systems, incubation, and R&D. This will mean less profit for the private sector and a lower rate of return for universities. But it will also mean more value in terms of social and environmental good. All around us we can see that “business as usual” will not save this planet. It’s time to divest from the old economy and invest in the new.

The new economy: Rethinking “the politics of no”

Finally, we are insisting that markets reward the positive externalities of our farms. We’re working in places like Connecticut to include ocean farmers in existing nitrogen trading programs. New farms are being built in polluted areas like Bridgeport and the Bronx River in order to soak up the nitrogen and carbon, pull out heavy metals, and re-build reefs. Instead of harvesting food, these farms harvest ecosystem services. While others pollute, we restore—and as farmers we should be paid for the positive externalities of our work. In the new economy, markets have to reflect the environmental benefits we provide.

In 1979, Jacques Cousteau, the father of ocean conservation, wrote: “We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about—farming replacing hunting.” This dream of Cousteau’s and of Green Wave’s is frightening to some environmentalists. The idea of hundreds of ocean farms dotting our coastlines and the idea of 3D farms embedded in wind farms are unsettling to many because of the scale. As a result, the instinct of environmentalists is to do everything they can to protect the oceans from any and all forms of economic development. They shield themselves with a “politics of no.” I’m sympathetic to these fears, especially given the history of industrial aquaculture in the 1980s; yet in the era of climate change, it’s an illusion for environmentalists to think they can save our seas by relying on a conservation strategy alone while continuing to ask the oceans to feed our hunger for wild seafood.

Conservation represents its own form of climate-change denial. We all know it’s real, but the true significance, the implications, the urgency, haven’t sunk in. Just look at what’s happening on land and sea: rising water temperatures and acidification threatening one out of four marine species with extinction; drought and extreme weather expected to make US corn prices go up by 140% in the next 15 years alone, while agriculture is responsible for one-third to one-half of all carbon emissions and uses 80% of the fresh water in some areas, making it the primary cause of droughts, rising food prices, and food insecurity.

If there is one lesson we should learn from the 2015 water wars in California, it’s that our food system is going to be driven out to sea. Yes, we need marine parks, but we could set aside the entire world’s oceans, and our ocean ecosystems would still die. Conservation alone is no longer environmentalism.

The climate crisis demands that we use our fears as a catalyst for change. For the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to grow food the right way, provide good middle-class jobs, restore ecosystem, and feed the planet.

This is the new face of environmentalism. As our food system gets pushed out to sea, we can come together to block privatization, to protect our commons and to spread the seeds of justice. We can invent new occupations, shift entire workforces out of the old economy into the new restorative economy. This is our chance to recruit an army of ocean farmers to grow a new climate cuisine that is both beautiful and hopeful so that all of us can make a living on a living planet.

This post originally appeared at Medium.

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