Over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. However, only 2.5 percent of that is fresh water, and roughly 70 percent of that is used for agriculture — which also takes up approximately half of Earth’s land. With climate change and soil degradation, the amount of viable cropland is shrinking at an alarming rate.
So why not grow crops using all of that available saltwater? The short answer is salinity — most of our favorite crops can’t grow in such salty environments. But new startup Agrisea is working to change that. The company creates a floating farm ecosystem that grows crops on saltwater, using only . . . saltwater. No soil, no fertilizers, and no fresh water required. The company is currently participating in life science accelerator IndieBio which includes $250,000 in seed funding.
“We looked at salt water, and saw a nutrient soup,” Agrisea founder Luke Young told me over the phone on a recent call. He and his co-founder Rory Hornby met while studying plant genetics and tissue regeneration, respectively, at Durham University. They united to develop a way to tap into the natural nutrients that are plentiful in oceans — which already sustain plants like algae — and apply to them to some of the world’s most popular crops.
After two years they developed salt-tolerant rice seeds that could thrive either in oceans or in paddies flooded with seawater. The seeds also don’t produce methane, which is a major climate concern for rice farming. In addition to rice, Agrisea has developed salt-tolerant kale seeds and is working on corn and soy.
Those engineered seeds go into modular floating ocean mini-farms which resemble honeycombs, each roughly a foot in diameter. Each unit contains a double layer of mesh: the top one holds in the plants, while the bottom one acts as a fish nursery. Since they’re not static, the farms can be moved if a major weather event like a hurricane is forecasted.
Initially, the company plans to license out its agriculture platform — including the modular units and salt-tolerant rice seeds — to farming companies and governments on a contract basis. Young said that areas which are experiencing saltwater flooding are, unsurprisingly, the most eager to get their hands on the technology.
And they might be able to in as little as six months. Young said that companies in some areas struggling with flooding, like Vietnam, are ready to use the saltwater farms as soon as they’re available. However, it’ll likely be two to three years until the tech is available in the U.S., where the farms have to get approval by both the FDA and the USDA. “This is an entirely new technology,” Hornby told me. “It’s not aquaculture, so they’re working to develop a new policy around it.”
With a global population set to reach almost 10 billion by 2050 and a finite amount of land and water, companies are hustling to find more sustainable and economical ways to grow food. Some point to hydroponic farming as a panacea, but it still requires massive amounts of freshwater and energy to function — and some doubt its efficacy. Gene-edited plants (like CRISPR) can be made more drought- or heat-resistant, but they still require water and soil inputs.
That’s why Agrisea’s solution has such potential. Yes, its technology is still chiefly untested — but if successful, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Agrisea’s saltwater farms could massively impact global agriculture. Farmers would no longer have to rely on scarce resources like freshwater and land, and could cut down on methane emissions in the process. In areas that are already dealing with the disastrous effects of climate change, Agrisea’s technology could be a positive sea change for agriculture.