Climate Positive

Bren Smith | Farming the ocean to fight climate change

Episode Summary

In this episode, we talk with Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman who is now the co-founder and co-executive director of Greenwave, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and protecting the oceans through regenerative ocean farming. The oceans are taking a beating from climate change. It’s estimated that they have absorbed nearly a third of the carbon released by humans. This creates a whole host of problems as the carbon dissolves in saltwater, making it more acidic while making it harder for calcifying organisms like oysters and coral to grow. Fishermen like Bren are on the front lines of the changing climate, but Bren shares how the oceans can be a source of renewal. Bren discusses how his inexpensive system for regenerative ocean farming avoids the vices of land-based agriculture: it requires no inputs of pesticides, fresh water, or even land. But, it produces nutrient dense foods while absorbing carbon and nitrogen, creating habitat, reducing local ocean acidification, and mitigating the impact of storm surges. Bren shares what motivated him to provide open access to his farming designs, why he started a nonprofit, and how he evaluates new market opportunities that can support ocean farmers. Talking with Bren left us more optimistic about the future of the planet and we hope his story will inspire you as well. Episode recorded: September 16, 2021

Episode Notes

In this episode, we talk with Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman who is now the co-founder and co-executive director of Greenwave, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and protecting the oceans through regenerative ocean farming.  

The oceans are taking a beating from climate change. It’s estimated that they have absorbed nearly a third of the carbon released by humans. This creates a whole host of problems as the carbon dissolves in saltwater, making it more acidic while making it harder for calcifying organisms like oysters and coral to grow.  

Fishermen like Bren are on the front lines of the changing climate, but Bren shares how the oceans can be a source of renewal. Bren discusses how his inexpensive system for regenerative ocean farming avoids the vices of land-based agriculture: it requires no inputs of pesticides, fresh water, or even land. But, it produces nutrient dense foods while absorbing carbon and nitrogen, creating habitat, reducing local ocean acidification, and mitigating the impact of storm surges. Bren shares what motivated him to provide open access to his farming designs, why he started a nonprofit, and how he evaluates new market opportunities that can support ocean farmers. Talking with Bren left us more optimistic about the future of the planet and we hope his story will inspire you as well.  


Greenwave (includes visuals of the Renerative Ocean Farm)

Patagonia Provisions Short Film on Kelp Farming and Greenwave

Bren Smith’s book, “Eat Like a Fish”


Episode recorded: September 16, 2021 

Episode Transcription

Bren Smith: I’d rather do this in my last breath when my boat is sinking and I'm happy and saying goodbye. That's what I want. I want those folks and I want to keep that culture alive being just part of that.

That's what innovation looks like to me. Keeping the fabric and the complexity, the beauty of all of our cultures, the shoreline cultures going.

Chad Reed: Welcome to Climate Positive, a podcast produced by Hannon Armstrong, a leading investor in climate solutions. I'm Chad Reed. 

Hilary Langer: I’m Hilary Langer.

Gil Jenkins: I’m Gil Jenkins.

Chad: In this series, we host candid conversations with the leaders, innovators, and changemakers driving our climate positive future.

Hilary: In this episode, we talk with Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman who is now the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Greenwave, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and protecting the oceans through regenerative ocean farming. 

It is estimated that the oceans have absorbed nearly a third of the carbon released by humans.  This carbon creates wreaks havoc as it dissolves in saltwater, making the water more acidic while impeding the ability of calcifying organisms such as oysters and coral to grow.  Climate change is also raising surface water temperatures and making degrading marine habitat. 

Fishermen like Bren are on the front lines of the changing climate, but Bren shares how the oceans can be a source of renewal.  Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the sustainable clothing company Patagonia, has declared Bren a hero for his inexpensive system for growing food.  Bren’s ocean farming avoids the vices of land-based agriculture: it requires no inputs of pesticides, fresh water, or even land.  But it produces nutrient dense foods while absorbing carbon and nitrogen, creating habitat, and mitigating the impact of storm surges. Talking with Bren left us more optimistic about the future of the planet and we hope his story will inspire you as well. 

Hilary: Bren, welcome to Climate Positive. We're thrilled to have you here.

Bren: Oh, it's great to be here. I can't believe you care about this. [chuckles] It's really exciting. Thanks for having me.

Hilary: You were born in Newfoundland to American parents and started off as fishermen, have turned into a regenerative ocean farmer. What was your childhood like?

Bren: My parents were out of Brooklyn and Stanford, went over the border and this VW bus is classic hippies. I don't think they call themselves draft dodgers with draft dodgers. [chuckles] I ended up in Newfoundland and we ended up in a little town, Petty Harbour, a little town, a little part of Petty Harbour called Maddox Cove but it's the most Eastern point in all of North America, just the edge of the earth. Exactly what people would conjure as an artisanal fishery back in the day. There was a fishermen's co-op next door.

Our houses were painted with leftover boat paints, blues, greens, oranges, the same ones you painted your house that way. You could find your house when you're drunk in the fog. There was something like a beacon saying to which one you where and selling Cod tongues door to door. It was just an idyllic, hardscrabble life. I actually grew up with an extreme stutter. I couldn't speak. I was very silent my first bunch of years. Then one day they found me talking alone on the beach, turns out I'd been talking on the beach [chuckles] alone away from people. It was just like, I didn't want to be-- I guess that was a good sign for me in the ocean. It was my comfort zone, my safe space.

Hilary: From your early days, you've been earning a living on the ocean, and then jumping forward to 1992, the Canadian government issued the moratorium on Cod fishing due to massive stock depletion. Overnight, this directly impacted the livelihoods of about 30,000 people. How did that moment change? How do you think about fishing and earning a livelihood off of the ocean?

Bren: I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and headed out to sea. I wanted one of those jobs. Fishermen have a self-directed life. They own their own boat. They succeed and fail on their own terms. No boss and this pride of feeding your country. There's a reason people write and sing songs about fishermen, farmers, coworkers. The cultural content of these jobs are just stunning.

Actually, I think one of the big questions for us in the new climate economy and creating jobs is can we have these jobs that are soul-filling? Can the new climate economy tap into blue-collar innovation? There should be sea shanties about solar workers and regenerative ocean farmers. That's where we need to get.

Anyways, commercial fishermen, that's what I wanted to do. I fish the globe, ended up in Alaska, the Bering Sea. As you said, when I was in the Bering Sea, I heard that the cod stocks crashed in Newfoundland. I went back and it was stunning to go back, and to go back from when I was a kid, young and seeing fishing there to suddenly hungry ghosts walking the streets. Canneries empty, boats beached, an entire economy wiped out overnight that have been built up over hundreds of years. That means culture gone. That means livelihood's gone like the entire fabric. I did not full conscious of this of it but I was like, "Oh, there aren't going to be any jobs on the dead ocean." My livelihood, of course, is tied to it.

I had been thinking environmentalism is about saving birds, bees, and bears. That's what the environmentalists have been telling me. I was like, whatever, I don't care. I cared [chuckles] but that wasn't front and center. It turns out that environmentalism, newly conceived, is making sure that I could make a living on a planet. It's about kitchen table issues. It's about jobs. It's about food. It's about family welfare. You need these things to save the birds and bees and bears.

In fact, you need us as humans to be working, to breathe life back into the ecosystem. Whether it's captured carbon or feeding and regenerative ways. I see that a lot of environmentalists who are still conservationists who want to set aside, they see their work as saying setting aside the ocean as marine protected zones, that's the most important thing. I think that's climate denial.

Hilary: Why is that?

Bren: You could set aside the entire ocean at this point as a marine zone, it's still going to die because of climate change, because of acidification. That's like a Teddy Roosevelt form of environmentalism. Instead, we need a creative space where you put people to work, breathing life back into the ocean. We can farm crops that capture carbon, nitrogen, literally produce oxygen, underwater trees, and rebuild reefs. You don't want to set this side stuff up part you integrate us fishermen and farmers into marine protected zones so that there are these living ecosystems to go. I think that's the new phase.

I don't have a comfort zone, really, with the ocean conservation people, I don't have a comfort zone, actually, with the Brooklyn foodie community, I feel so comfortable in the climate solution space. There are millions of people out there trying to figure out how to do this nexus of solving the climate crisis to create economic opportunity. I still don't think of myself as an environmentalist at the end of the day.

Hilary: Let’s back up a bit. I want to touch on some of the stories you share in your book, Eat Like a Fish.  It’s fantastic.  We read it in our Hannon Armstrong book club and it got everyone fired up to farm kelp.In the book, you talk about all the different jobs you’ve had on the water from fishing, lobstering, working on a salmon farm, and you’ve now working as a regenerative ocean farming.Why did you make these shifts? 

Bren: I got out of the fisheries because I was driven off the water, in the ocean agriculture, and worked on the salmon farms that was going to be the future and instead, the salmon farms at that time was pig farming at sea, monoculture used to pesticides, antibiotics, just growing terrible food with terrible impact. I kept looking. The only thing I've done is refuse to leave the water. I've been pushed off many times, but I claw my way back.

What happened in that, I became an oysterman. What oysters taught me and the oyster industry taught me was like, Oh, if you asked the ocean what to grow, if you don't grow around markets, the reason we grow salmon and tuna and stuff is because that's what people want to eat but that's backwards. You have to see what's unique about the ocean agricultural space and what's possible. We do that the oceans like, "Hell, why don't you grow things that don't swim away, and you don't have to feed?" Oysters told me that.

I was like, "Oh, I put in seed, I grow them in cages, I nurture them and then I harvest them. I've got zero inputs, I don't have to feed them. I don't have to give any fertilizer, I don't need land, I don't need fresh water." This is a good economic model. As soon as you draw a box in the ocean around, things that don't swim away, don't have to feed, there are 10,000 plants in the ocean, there are hundreds of kinds of shellfish. There could be an entire agricultural economy around something but just if you listen and look at the core benefits of the ocean and not be driven purely by market demand.

Now, that's not easy and we can go into all the challenges. I don't want to say it's easy to do that way but it's a must. That was my transition. I started redesigning from my oysters, I then started to bring in different species and redesigning my farm and moving off bottom, using the entire water column.

Hilary: Why did you move away from just oyster farming? Because a lot of people focus exclusively on oysters.

Bren: Yes, I had a very successful oyster company, was the beginning of that boutique selling into Brooklyn and Manhattan and things like that, hyped restaurants. It was great. Then Hurricane Sandy and Irene came in and wiped out my farm two years in a row. One storm is one thing, but you get two years in a row and you're like, "Once again, no jobs on a dead plant." I needed to figure out, it was a really depressing moment when 90% of my crop gone, most of my gear destroyed. I felt like I was going to get pushed off the water again.

Once again, just as I'd remade myself as a green fisherman doing oysters and learning for the entire oyster industry. Here I am a cannary in a coal mine, frontlines in the climate crisis and my business destroyed. After picking myself up a little bit, it was like what can we borrow from land? How do we think about this and become climate-resilient and create business models that are climate-resilient? That means polyculture. We grow oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, seaweeds, all of those come in different seasons. We've got a crop year-round. I moved my farm off bottom.

I used to have 100 acres and I shrunk it down to 20 acres to grow more food than before because I'm using that entire water column. Then designing around hurricanes, I started to design, I tried to fight, I was like an oak in the ocean. I use things that would try to stand up to the waves and weather, and then redesign to just give in and be a willow not at oak. A storm comes through, we just had some good storms come through, the farm bends, goes underwater and then pops back up. That was the beginning of this journey of just trying to figure out.

I will say, it's not like I invented anything. There have been regenerative ocean farmers since the indigenous farmers in the Pacific Northwest 3,000 years ago building clam walls. This is something that's existent. There have been these peaks on east and west to grow and to try to modernize and figure out different species. I like stole, borrowed, I had incredible amount of support. I think what I did was bring different systems together into one system that worked in my area. I synthesized and now have an incredible team and we're consistently trying to move that forward again and again. Recently we just increased yields by a factor of five per acre with some new farming design. That one's fine. We need all hands on deck. We need new people in this industry and it's a fun space.

Hilary: Walk us through what it looks like. If we were to go out fishing around your farm, what would it look like at the water level and then down pillow? How is this structured?

Bren: I run these eco-tours. People come out and pay money and it's a total rip-off.


Because you come out like go land-based farm. When you see all these fields, people working. You see barns and all this beautiful stuff. You come up my farm, you're driving out and there's nothing to see. I'm pointing at it and people are squinting trying to see. There are just a couple of buoys on the surface because it's all underwater. It's just scaffolding. It's just like ropes. We call them lines in the ocean but like sort of ropes and buoys. Imagine anchors on the edges, some ropes up to the surface, a buoy holding that. Then below the surface, you've got these horizontal ropes. Then, from there we grow our crops. We have muscles hanging, scallops and oysters down the bottom, and cages and seaweed growing vertically downward.

That low aesthetic impact has been really important. Our oceans are these beautiful pristine places of the continents owned by everybody. We don't even own that property. What we own is the right to grow shellfish and seaweed. It's almost like a process right. Anybody could come fish, swim, dive through our kelp forest, kayak some of the best fishing, the entire areas on my farm because there's just so much stuff going on. We have seals and ducks and all this activity. We get that social license, not a huge visual impact, and we invite people in, as opposed to keep them out. That's what you see.

I was such a bad farmer at first. As a fisherman, I just ran on adrenaline chase. We're some of the last hunters on the earth. Commercial hunters and farming was just this slow, methodical, boring. I had to lower my coffee intake.


Just like hanging out with these tea-drinking arugula farmers. I did not like it much, but over time, I calm down. I just developed this blue-green thumb. It got fascinated by growing stuff. I never wanted to grow seaweed and I'd rather wish it was like hemp underwater. It just sound cooler to all my fisherman friends. Now, in the early spring, I'd be out there all winter and I bring this wall of plants from under the ocean. They're like 15, 20 feet long. They go 400 feet long. It's an entire all of chocolate brown shimmering plants. That's pretty amazing. I don't get to chase fish but I still get to feed my community, have a self-directed life on my own boat, no boss. Just have this pride of cultivation. I think we're on a roll. If any of your folks at your place want to try a couple of sea shanties about regenerative ocean farming, send them to GreenWave.


Hilary: I like that. Through this process, you've invested years and years of fine-tuning your model and through this established your nonprofit GreenWave, which provides open-source design. Anyone can come in and rip off what you have created. Why did you structure it that way?

Bren: I think one of the good things I did is there were two right moves I did. One was I didn't go to market too quickly, meaning I stayed a Petri dish experiment, made all my errors, made a living, but didn't come out with this big design. We get a lot of attention now but forget there were 15 years in the dark underwater trying to figure this out. That was one thing. I think we picked the right time when it was workable, viable, not in its R&D stage, to move out for replication.

The other thing is I was pushed very heavily to do franchising models, things like that, and to tailor that model and have the business make money on replication. I resisted that and the reason was my goal is to create livelihoods for the 30,000 people thrown out of work. I mean from my end. That's the goal. It's not to become the kelp king. That's great to be a kelp king but that sounds boring. It's not interesting to me. I’d rather do this in my last breath when my boat is sinking and I'm happy and saying goodbye. That's what I want. I want those folks and I want to keep that culture alive being just part of that.

That's what innovation looks like to me. Keeping the fabric and the complexity, the beauty of all of our cultures, the shoreline cultures going. I'm only a tiny piece of it, of course. The other reason is that I founded a nonprofit because there needed to be a knowledge network, a safe space without the financial incentives to create sharing really fast learning curves. What you've had 10,000 years to figure out how to grow corn.

We've got 10 years to figure out how to do this before the planet dies. I don't want to be dark about it but the clock is ticking. We have to do so much hive, mind, and circular learning amongst all the farmers around the country, around the world so we become better and better farmers really, really quickly so we can produce a tremendous amount of food in a regenerative way.

The nonprofit, we do have a plan for planned obsolescence. Our view is if we can trade 10,000 farmers, hatchery techs workers in the next 10 years, then I can shut down GreenWave. If there's an end game because I think that it has a life of its own. That's the theory of change behind it. Right now, what we do, and we work around the country and have a couple of projects globally, but we really do concentrate mostly on north America.

We've got this high-touch program where we do farmer training and we work with indigenous communities and fishermen directly affected by climate change and that's very resource-intensive. We're on the farms. They're on our farms. We help set up the first two indigenous-owned seaweed hatcheries in the country. We're finding markets for their crops, and then there's the low touch because we have a waiting list of 8,000 people in the US for our farmer training program. That's without zero outreach. I had to figure it out. We can't train all those people. Developed online tools that we're just rolling out now. One, for example, is a farm design to where you can put your lease size, your bottom type, the depth, a bunch of factors that it'll spit out two different farm designs, an interactive budget, a gear list, and [unintelligible] language.

Hilary: That's incredible. What a resource.

Bren: That was complicated.


Bren: But I had nothing to do with it. All I said to people is design something that I wish I had 20 years ago. They have that and then a curriculum next to it from seed to harvest, and then next we're rolling out. We just built the farmer community so people can learn for themselves. That's interesting, who's in and who's out of that. You have to have a lease to participate in that community.

Hilary: Is that all online?

Bren: Yes, all online. That's going to be released in February. We did a beta of the toolkit with 100 farmers around the country and then we're making the tweaks now but we're really excited for it. That just allows us eventually, again, to be irrelevant. Is the real hope. What we'll do is just listen to that community, keep making tools to put into the toolkit so that we're just packaging those learnings. That's once I have a program.

The other side of the programing is innovation. We talk about markets but one piece of that is really, I've got a team just looking at the choke points along the supply chain and trying to solve those issues. Then we have a buyers' network where buyers come and we match them with farmers and stuff like that. Then our R& D, we've got 106 different strains of kelp on our farm for climate resilience. We have new farm designs, all that and we have some interesting projects where we're taking the kelp using it for fertilizer to grow sweet potatoes, soil amendments. That's our whole R&D thing.

Hilary: You have 8,000 inquiries from people who want to start farms. Are they folks who are currently farming, able to earn a good living?

Bren: Yes. One of our challenges, I agree with him is how to track the metrics of success because there are 197 just seaweed permits in the country right now. We're able to track permits, hatcheries. There are probably 40 to 50 hatcheries around the country and we're able to track, yield and yield right now has been going up 40% a year but it's still at just for kelp. Shellfish is massive which is great. Seaweeds is about, I forgot right now but I think it's about 2 million pounds right now. Based on the number of farmers, I think that's going to just go up exponentially.

There's someone like, let's say, Catherine Puckett of Block Island. She's growing oysters, clams, and kelp. She went from growing 2,000 pounds of seaweed over winter. She just got to do order for 30,000 pounds, $2 a pound, that's real money, but I will say there's like farmers and then there are gardeners. Gardeners are people out with a couple of lines, I think it's not making a living. It's more of a hobby.

There are people that are gardeners now that really want to become farmers. They are in that learning stage. One of the things GreenWave really works on is getting them up to the next level. Anyway, I think we're very serious about trying to figure out those metrics, but it's complicated because it's so resource attended. There's no database out there from NOAA or anybody of any of this stuff. We called every, NOAA office around the country to find out how many permits, for example, but we'll get there. That's where we're headed.

Hilary: You're helping to develop these markets for kelp, with different applications from bio-plastics to fertilizer and food. You can add it to feed and it makes cattle burp less and emit less methane.  One really powerful application for kelp is its ability to absorb carbon. These days there’s increasing focus on carbon dividends. Putting a price on carbon emissions, charging polluters, returning the money to people, and then creating a national market for carbon credits. Since kelp is carbon negative, how would a price on carbon impact the GreenWave farmers? Do you see that as a viable source of revenue? 

Bren: It's fascinating. We've been swimming around the carbon credit offset space quite a while and kelp is the sequoia of the sea, tremendous amount of carbon. The question is, there are several, one question is where does that carbon go? There's avoided carbon. Someone needs kelp instead of lentils, that carbon still goes out, but it's less carbon than the lentils. You're avoiding. Anything you eat on land, basically, has a higher footprint than things you're eating in the ocean because of the zero input nature of it.

Then there's drawdown, then there's sequestered carbon. They think about 12% of the kelp as you're growing, it falls off and ends up in the deep ocean and it gets sequestered there for like 1,000 years or something or more. They're trying to figure exactly how much right now. [unintelligible] has a great project. I'm trying to figure exactly that out.

Then there's the kelp you take out and you get into the soil. Instead of fossil fuel-intensive fertilizers, you're using locally grown fertilizers on land-based farms then that carbon gets into the soil, that nitrogen gets to the soil and it gets stabilized. Now we have to have to, have to economy as a whole. The markets have to reflect the positive externalities. The trouble is policy's too slow, way, way, way too slow. It's going to take years and years and years of trying to sort itself out. That's what they'd created the offset market. [unintelligible] It was okay, it's too slow we're going to go to the private way. Tons of companies come to us for offsets.

The trouble with the offsets is that it's also too slow because the markets are too slow. The price of carbon right now is $35 a ton. What's the goal of this? Is the hat incentivize farmers to plant more kelp or whatever, do more regenerative techniques on land and stuff like that. That price has to be incentivized and it's so low in the offset market, just generally. I'm just launching a new program just because I'm so annoyed and I've just taken so long and I just think we just don't have time.

We just launched a philanthropic fund where farmers get paid $0.10 a pound above whatever they're getting paid for the good stuff that kelp does for the climate. It's the kelp climate fund. That $0.10 makes it worth it for a farmer to plant more and more and more and more. It aligns the incentive. I don't care right now what the market is saying about the price point. We're creating the vehicle, priming the pump. Then when the policy of markets figure it out, there will be this. We have farmers lined up anybody growing above 30,000 pounds, will get $0.10 a pound on top of whatever they're paying but that's philanthropic.

I think the markets will get there. I just want them to hurry up before we all drown a bird. But what resiliency looks like is you grow food. Your waste is going to agricultural products just like feed and things like that, bio-plastics and things like that. Then you get blue and nitrogen, carbon offsets like that's another harvest. Then the last harvest is can we harvest data and sell that? But the reason I care about that is you got polyculture of crops, but you also have polyculture of income streams. It is so hard to grow food underwater because you can't see what you growing. Christ, I can't even swim. I can't see what I grow, I can't control it.

My soil turns over 1,000 times a day, think about it. I can't augment it, I can't build hoop houses, I can't do any of it. I have so little control. Our models have to be extremely resilient to a changing environment. That's fun, quite honestly, but we can't just make widgets.

Hilary: How do you begin the resiliency since you don't have control over what's in the water and what the temperature is?

Bren: Part of it is design. Let's say my waters are warming, I am at the southern region of kelp where my farm is, waters are warming. I get a spike in temperatures just before harvest and the trouble is, is I'll get a lot of things growing on it, the kelp, it won't be harvestable if the waters are too warm. The farm is designed so I can drop the whole thing down to deeper waters where it's cold to wait for harvest. That's one type of resilience, the architectural design stuff is really fun. That's a piece of it. The other piece is taking that polyculture thing to the extreme.

I have a season that is bad because of environmental conditions. I have other props I could sell through the year round, this is the reason you don't want to do monoculture, that's one thing, my code fails, I could do my clamps, and then what happens if my whole crop fails for the whole year? I still have sensors on my farm, which are collecting data, I'm still out there collecting physical data, packaging that, is that a crop? All the things I'm growing was breathing life back into the ocean. I still have my blue carbon, it just went to the bottom of the sea, which is great from a climate perspective.

I have the blue carbon piece. Diversity creates climate resilience. Now, I don't want to sell it, it makes things more complicated, for sure, but I don't know how, in the area of climate change, you don't run with that principle of diversity creates resilience, just as from a farmer perspective, having been in a growing in a highly volatile environment for 20 years. I think that's one thing I've learned.

Hilary: You've touched a bit on GreenWave's emphasis on data, could you elaborate on how you're thinking about data, collecting it, and what you're doing with it?

Bren: It's an early program right now. We have sensors on the farm that are both weather stations that are collecting, temperature rating up or down, column, we're getting a whole new suite of sensors out, actually, in the fall to measure nutrients and things that.That's one-piece is like wiring the farm.

The other thing is we collect physical data. We've got calculations where if you go out and measure the length and you count the width, the amount per foot, you'll get yield estimates out of that and that's really important data.

We're measuring light penetration in a second, all of this stuff, and the scientists really want it and the farmers really need it. If you plant your kelp in a 2 degrees difference temperature-wise, it affects yields by 20%, which is stunning.

You need that sweet spot, and the NOAA data is too far away. I need microdata. The other thing is can we be measuring sea-level rise, acidification, all sorts of different things on the farm and again, package that and have it go to places like NOAA insurance companies, they're trying to figure out the policy in different areas but that's a journey we're going. I'm not sure it's going to work but I do know data is essential for us anyway.

Hilary: Through your data, you've been able to show that these farms actually reduced local ocean acidification. Is that right?

Bren: Yes, there's something called a halo effect, which is stunning where you surround a shellfish farm with seaweed, and inside the farm, you have lower acidification rates than outside. They call a halo effect, these crops, they're just stunningly powerful technologies soaking up 5 to 20 times more carbon than land-based plants. An oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day pulling nitrogen. They're just stunning. Our job is just to use those natural solutions to address some of the harms we see.

Hilary: Let's talk about these inquiries from the potential farmers. You've got 8,000 inquiries right now. Let's say half of them get set up and start farms. What kind of infrastructure needs to be in place to support them?

Bren: You need hatcheries. We think of it as a reef. Let's say 50 to 25 farms at an area, a hatchery, a processing hub, and then rings of entrepreneurs doing value-added products, and then you replicate that reef everywhere there's a Home Depot.

It's like up and down the coast and you have distributed constant supply for [unintelligible] farms but the problem with our model, the challenge, let's say that this is a challenge for land-based farms as well, is our farming model is incredible underwater because it's so cheap. I got farmers where it's $3,000 to set up an entire farm in Long Island in shallow waters. My farm was $20,000 to set up. If you go out deeper waters, it gets even more like $50,000 but this is cheap to do relatively. When you hit the docks suddenly costs go way up, processing hubs, food logistics, all these different things. I think that's where we need a lot of capital into the industry, not for GreenWave, but for folks dealing with that infrastructure, the middle challenge capital and really creative thinking of, what kind of kelp? What kind of kelp should look like because that infrastructure is low margin, capital intensive infrastructure. Again, this has been the challenge with land-based farming too hugely. Folks really need to crack that nut.

We're okay now because we have enough processors. The challenge I've had over the last since we started GreenWave is you can't move one piece on the chessboard without the others. There are too many farmers, your supply goes up and there's not enough infrastructure or markets fall behind that there's too much infrastructure, obvious stuff. We've had to move each piece of the chessboard. Right now, I'd say in the country, we're in a good space where there's an equal number of farmers who can scale processors and market pull. There's actually on the East Coast not enough kelp right now to meet the existing market for plant-based foods, which is really good.

Hilary: Really, from the foods? Not even thinking about the other applications?

Bren: Absolutely. We've got a whole leaf strategy, we talked about that. It goes to specialty foods, wholesale plant-based foods, and then fertilizer, compost feed, and then bioplastics. Each of those have a different price point. Average over the whole plant, you want $2 a pound to make a living as a farmer. We do specialty products like kelp bread and butter pickles, kelp curries, mustards, that's nice boutique-ee stuff in Brooklyn. That's not going to build a huge scale economy, but it's nice for high value. It's $13 a pound.

The plant-based burger, AKUA is a great company. It's doing kelp and mushroom burgers and they're very good, they're delicious. That's coming from someone who does not enjoy kelp. Yes, that plant-based piece is a huge market because it's everywhere it is and our crops could be price competitive because there's zero input, like anybody else is doing soy and all the other stuff. They put in things. They got to use water, fertilizer. They got to use land. They got nutrient deficiencies. We don't have any of that.

Hilary: For listeners in Kansas City who are really interested in what you’re doing but they’re just not going to be able to access the water on a daily basis, how can they support this movement in GreenWave and regenerative ocean farming more broadly?

Bren: Yes. There's one technical piece where they're just trying to figure out the genome of kelp and kelp fertilizers. In the early 1900s, there were 1,500 workers on the docks of San Diego processing kelp for 700 farms in the Midwest for fertilizer and feed. These are early 1900s. If you can take seaweeds and get them into the soil as fertilizer in land-based agriculture, I think you can have a very fast climate impact. That's one way. I think the Midwest matters that kelp is so light so it's cheap to ship. That's one.

The other thing is we actually work with universities in the center of the country who are doing a lot of the high-tech lab stuff with fresh packaging, sequencing. They're doing all their stuff in their labs. That's the other thing. The other thing is, just in a very simple direct way, you can support GreenWave, sponsor farmers, and things like that. The other thing is this orientation of right now, the strategy is to build sea walls and [unintelligible] the coasts.

Everybody [unintelligible] comes to watching that happen on both coasts. Why should they care? Part of saving the planet is turning around and bracing the ocean as a climate solution. It is going to be core to reduce carbon to feed the planet to save civilization as we know it. You want to support the Blue New Deal or whatever it is in order to save your community.

It feels like a reach but, you know what? 70% of the world's water, that is where our expansion of climate resilience solutions. It's one of the major places where it will have to happen and it is going to happen. I think oddly enough NOAA matters [chuckles] to folks in Kansas at this point. It's fun, order some kelp and see if you're good enough cook to make this weird thing delicious.


Hilary: Let’s turn to our rapid fire hot seat questions. Are you ready?

Bren: Yes.

Hilary: First is the most important advice I have followed is?

Bren: Figure out what you're really bad at that and don't do it. Find people next to you that are really good at doing the stuff you really suck at.

Hilary: The most important advice or feedback I have rejected is?

Bren: Take every idea and treat it as a profit opportunity. We need new business models that are climate-resilient.

Hilary: I'm most inspired by?

Bren: It is stunning, how many people are out on the ground doing very concrete climate solutions out there all around the world. It is just stunning to take a ride through that global community of people every day, waking up and trying to do this. Yes, there's white-collar, but there is a massive movement of blue-collar innovation, of people trying to solve these problems. We are all experiencing it and we are really excited amongst us, [chuckles] to talk about it and to solve it and to bring our creativity and bring our agency to it. That has been just stunning to join that. Humans are so good at stuff. We're too good at what we do. The reason we caught all the fish is we got too good at fishing. Let's get too good at solving climate change. That sounds awesome.


Hilary: Let's do that. The best job I've ever had was?

Bren: Oh, God. On the Bearing Sea with a shotgun shooting seagulls at the age of 17


Bren: It was the best job.

Hilary: All downhill from there.

Bren: Yes, just so they didn't steal the bait off the log lines, yes. God, that was a good job. [chuckles]

Hilary: Then finally, finish this sentence. To me, climate positive means?

Bren: Solving both climate change and economic inequality at the same time, keeping those linked. Climate positive is we get this chance to build something beautiful and do food right and something that we can look back on and be truly proud of where communities benefited, and we did delicious, beautiful food and scaled the economy exponentially. For America, this is such an opportunity, but we got to hold all these things together at once so everybody benefits.

Hilary: I love that. Thank you so much, Bren, for joining us. I'm inspired by what you've been doing with GreenWave and your team. We are excited to see where you go in the next 5 and 10 years as we try to tackle climate change.

Bren: Is this cool that who would've guessed that we'd be all hanging out together? It's climate change that's bringing all of us together, right? That we get to talk to each other on this and this is all because it's climate change. This is going to be a fun creative journey. We might all burn and drown in the end, but it's going to be a good ride. [laughs]

Hilary: We'll have good conversations on the way.

Bren: Yes, exactly. Good. Make sure someone writes to sea shanty about regenerative ocean farming. [chuckles]

Hilary: Okay. Yes, I'll send you a recording.

Bren: Oh, perfect. Okay, good.

Chad: Climate Positive is produced by Hannon Armstrong and David Benjamin Sound. If you like what you heard today, please share the show with friend and leave us a comment and a rating on our show page. 

You can send us show and guest suggestions by tweeting at us @HannonArmstrong or reach us via email at

I'm Chad Reed 

And this is Climate Positive.