This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Seaweed Special, first released on September 13, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: We are so excited to be here with you here at Boston’s Museum of Science. This is our first ever live event! And you’re the ones who get to suffer through any mistakes we might make.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But don’t worry, we also brought snacks. So it’s not going to be all bad. But you cannot eat any of those snacks until we tell you. So sit tight and keep your hands off the chocolate. You’ve got to earn it!
GRABER: Tonight, you’ll get to watch fungi and bacteria interact on a sliver of cheese—as you eat them!
TWILLEY: The cheese is alive. And you’re eating it! And then as if that’s not enough, we’ll be introducing you to the new kale. It’s kelp.
TWILLEY: But wait, you’re thinking. I’m not at the Boston Museum of Science. Unless by random chance you are, in which case, check out the Butterfly Garden and the Soundstair.
GRABER: No, but a lot of you WERE there with us—we had our first live event this spring at the Museum of Science! It was great fun.
TWILLEY: And we wanted to share one of the highlights with you in this special show. So that thing we said about the new kale being kelp… that’s what today’s show is about. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. This episode, you’ll hear from Bren Smith. He is a seaweed superstar.
TWILLEY: We did our first ever live event on May 4, at the Museum of Science in Boston, like we said. And we had chocolate and cheese tastings—you guys are going to have to take care of that yourselves. Feel free to press pause while you gather supplies.
GRABER: But for our main course that evening we focused on a topic we’ve explored before—but there’s so much going on with seaweed these days that we had plenty new to offer. We started with a brief refresher on how the seaweed industry got rebooted in New England.
TWILLEY: So dim the lights, curtain raise, here we go….
TWILLEY: So we know you guys are all super ahead of the curve, very thoughtful, very conscious eaters. So we wanted to go vegetarian for the main course, I hope that’s alright with everyone. And, you know, kale, kale is a little 2013 at this point…
GRABER: Kelp is the new kale. So until recently, you might have only seen kelp, you know, wrapping sushi. But those vegetables that grow in the sea, they’re good for a lot more than just wrapping rice. I mean, and forget about Asia entirely! Seaweed is actually a native New England food that we somehow forgot about. But not anymore, it’s coming back.
TWILLEY: That’s right. New England is in the middle of seaweed boom and we visited its epicenter in Stamford, CT. Charlie Yarish is fairy godfather to millions of tiny little kelp growing offshore from New York City to Maine.
GRABER: So, Charlie is an expert in seaweed biology. And he wanted to help New England fishermen grow kelp. And he wanted them to beat Asian seaweed farmers. He knew we couldn’t compete on price. So he wanted to come up with a way to dramatically speed up the seaweed farming process.
TWILLEY: Charlie turned his lab into a combination seaweed brothel and nursery. He starts by harvesting reproductive organs from wild seaweed and he brings them back to the lab, puts them in an oversized beaker, and then he starts setting the mood.
GRABER: He turns the lights down, the water’s not too hot, not too cold, and the food is just perfect.
TWILLEY: And then, most importantly, he puts the love tank on a wobble board and he recreates the motion of the ocean. And the kelp get it on! Cover your ears, children, that is the sound of seaweed sex.
GRABER: Charlie gets those seaweed so happy that they’re able to grow to the age, to the size that the fishermen are able to seed them back in the water in one third the time it would take them in the wild. That is two months faster.
TWILLEY: And Charlie is not stopping with just kelp. He has an entire lab full of different species of baby seaweed and he’s figuring out how to farm them all. It looks kind of like a lava lamp showroom—it’s really pretty.
GRABER: It is really pretty. Bren, will you come up and join us? So, Bren Smith is one of the beneficiaries of Charlie’s seaweed magic. He runs a farm called Thimble Island Ocean Farm and he runs a nonprofit called Green Wave.
TWILLEY: And he just won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for Ecological Design. Now, Bren does not sit in the lab watching seaweed having sex. He’s —
BREN SMITH: Wrong job!
TWILLEY: He’s a clean minded individual and he’s out on the ocean growing the kelp instead and then processing it and then getting it to the grocery stores or chefs and then, in his spare time, he is advising other would-be kelp farmers on how to get started.
GRABER: OK, so, Bren.
GRABER: It doesn’t really seem like there’s a very clear career path to seaweed farmer. How’d you get into kelp?
SMITH: Well, first of all it’s as embarrassing as you can imagine. I mean I grew up, you know, beating seals and chasing tuna and now I’m a freaking arugula farmer. I have to hang in totally different bars, it’s awful. But, so I was born and raised Newfoundland, I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and headed out to sea. I fished the Grand Banks, Georges Banks, and ended up in the Bering Sea and you know, this was the height of industrial fishing. So we’re tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, I’ve thrown tens of thousands of pounds of dead bycatch back in the sea. And most of the fish we were catching was going to McDonald’s. So I was a kid, like 15, 16, working 30 hour shifts in one of the most destructive forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the lowest quality unhealthy food on the planet.
But while I was there, the cod stocks crashed when I was back home, and thousands of fishermen thrown out of work. And that was a real wake-up call for a whole generation of us, and it kind of created a split. The captains of industry, they just wanted to—they were thinking ten years out and they wanted to fish the last fish. We all wanted to die on our boats one day, we were thinking 50 years. And so we went on a search for sustainability. And I went to the aquaculture farms in Northern Canada—supposed to be the answer to overfishing—it was disgusting. Polluting local waterways, pesticides, antibiotics, everything we know now. We used to say on the farms, we’re growing neither fish nor food. And in a way, what we did with aquaculture then was create these Iowa pig farms at sea.
So I kept looking and then eventually ended up in Long Island Sound. And the last little piece of this is I was an oyster farmer, which was kind of boring too. And did that for about 7 years and then the storms hit. So Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy came in, wiped out my farm two years in a row, 90 percent of my crop, lost most of my gear. And that’s when I had to completely rethink both who I was as a fisherman, who I was as a farmer, and what is it going to mean to grow food in the oceans in this new era of climate change?
TWILLEY: So you have this really intriguing term to describe what you do, 3D ocean farming. Can you tell us what a 3D farm looks like? How it works?
SMITH: So imagine an underwater garden. So we have these chains on the side are hurricane proofing and then parallel to the surface we grow our kelp and it grows vertically down. And next to the kelp, we’ve lanternettes with scallops and then mussels in these mussel socks, also next. And then below, we have oyster cages that sit on the seafloor and then down in the mud we have our clams. And the whole idea is to try to figure out how many different kinds of species can we grow in 20 acres. But species that restore rather than deplete the environment.
TWILLEY: And so this is what you see underwater—what are you seeing on the surface?
SMITH: So I love it because there’s nothing to see, it’s like the worst tour in the world. I bring people out and they’re like [SHRUGS] and then we go home. But they pay 500 bucks. But so there’s really not much to see, and that’s a good thing. Our oceans are these beautiful, pristine places and we need to keep them that way. Because we’re underwater, anybody can fish, boat, swim on our farm. So we’re protecting rather than privatizing our commons. And we have very small footprints, my farm used to be 100 acres, now it’s down to 20 acres and I grow way more food than ever before. We can produce about 250,000 shellfish and 10 to 30 tons of kelp per acre.
GRABER: So you got into this and you wanted to do something that you thought was sustainable, and you just said you really wanted to restore the ocean. So how does kelp, in particular—how does it help with that?
SMITH: Well it’s this incredible agent of sustainability. I always say, you know, it’s not my job to save the seas, but rather, figure out how the seas can save us. Because kelp, Mother Nature developed thousands of years, millions of years ago, and it actually mitigates our harm. So it soaks up nitrogen, which is the cause of dead zones, it soaks up five times more carbon than land-based plants, it’s called the sequoia of the sea. The New Yorker actually recently just called it the culinary equivalent of the electric car.
And then our farms also function as artificial reef systems and storm surge protectors. So over 150 species come to hide, eat, and thrive because there’s just all this stuff going on there and my—this area used to be a barren patch of ocean and now it’s a thriving ecosystem. And then the last piece is, we grow zero input food. So it requires no fresh water, no fertilizer, no feed, no arid land, making it hands down the most sustainable form of food production on the planet. And in the era of climate changes, water prices go up, feed prices, land prices, it’s also going to be the most affordable food on the planet. We will be eating kelp, whether we like it or not, because it’s zero-input food. The question is, is it going to be beautiful and delicious or is it going to be like being force fed cod liver oil?
GRABER: It’s going to be beautiful.
TWILLEY: Well so, forget insects, this really sounds like the food of the future.
SMITH: Boo insects.
TWILLEY: Deep fried, they’re fine, but you know, kelp is better. And—but it’s also sort of a rediscovery of the past. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of kelp in the Americas?
SMITH: Yeah, so there’s an entire Western culinary history of seaweeds that’s completely forgotten. Mainly because industrial food just changed our seafood plate and pushed everything off and you know, just gave us cod and salmon and a couple fish. So Italians three generations back used to use seaweeds all the time in their cooking. There’s the kelp highway all up and down South America and in the digs they find people were eating all sorts of seaweeds back then. There’s in Peru—I was just in Peru—in the specialty restaurants they’re all eating seaweeds. And I’m from Newfoundland—all of our crappy food was trucked in or boated in. The best vegetables around were seaweeds.
GRABER: And so now I have to admit, I really want to taste this wonder food.
TWILLEY: Cynthia always has to eat everything we report on, so we do.
SMITH: [SARCASTICALLY] The trouble is, it’s disgusting.
GRABER: So Bren, really though, what does your seaweed taste like?
SMITH: So kelp is a great gateway drug to de-sushify seaweeds. And the reason is it’s extremely mild tasting. Well first, when you cook it, you throw it in some water and it turns this bright green, right? Which is a great aesthetic experience for a cook. And then we turn it into noodles very often, and you get a—it has a very neutral flavor, so it sauces very well. And the mouthfeel, it keeps an al dente sort of slight crunch to it, which is really good. And that’ll stay, you can freeze it up to five years and you still get that great texture.
GRABER: What are some dishes that you’ve seen chefs make with it?
SMITH: Sure, so we are now working with chefs that don’t do seafood. Because this isn’t seafood, this is a vegetable, right? So you think of it wrapped around a piece of salmon, right? Or in like, in some miso soup. Brooks Headley in New York City, who used to be a punk rock musician and a five star pastry chef, who doesn’t know anything about seafood, made barbecue kelp noodles with breadcrumbs and parsnips. Delicious! Right? It’s a vegetable, right, so you’re coming at it a totally different way. We just did an event with Google where there was a half beef, half kelp burger. And it both had that deep, umami taste, but it also had the bright green stripes through it.
And, just as a side note, that we can feed cattle, chicken, goats kelp. They’ve been eating it actually for hundreds of years, again, before industrial food changed their appetites, their habits. And you get a 90% reduction in methane output—stunning—and you get this incredible, delicious, umami-packed, slightly salty beef. It’s like a French salt marsh beef.
TWILLEY: Wow. Kelp stops the farts.
TWILLEY: So we really wanted to have some of Bren’s kelp here for you tonight to try, right? You want to try it after hearing that. But his last season’s harvest is completely sold out already! But Bren, it’s harvest season right now?
TWILLEY: How’s it going?
SMITH: Um, I smelled like seaweed when I came in because I was on the boat this morning. Kelp is so fast-growing that it’s a nightmare. We seed it in November, which is past, post-hurricane season, and then it’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world, so we have, you know, 12-, 15-foot plants, probably 40, 50 tons of it that need to come out in a really short period of time. So we’re just—we have our processing plant going and we’re pulling day and night shifts.
GRABER: That’s amazing.
SMITH: But we’re getting 12-foot noodles. So we have this noodle machine that cuts it into noodles and you get literally a 12-foot—so imagine like on a dish, it’s like that Disney movie, you know?
GRABER: I’m hungry.
SMITH: Just too, one of the things about kelp but it’s not—I say kelp is a gateway drug because there are ten thousand edible plants in the sea. This is the beginning of a like a hundred-year journey of zero-input foods and imagine being a chef and realizing there are arugulas, spinaches, tomatoes, rice, corn that you’ve never seen and never tasted before. It’s, one of my chefs said, it’s daunting and exciting at the same time.
GRABER: Thank you Bren. I’m kind of blown away myself. So everybody, look out, keep your eye out for seaweed in your local grocery stores and your local restaurants.
TWILLEY: Yeah, try it and tell us what you think.
TWILLEY: So at this point in the show, Bren took a seat, and we moved onto dessert. But when it came time for the Q&A, Bren was mobbed. Everyone had a question for him.
GRABER: Question time!
TWILLEY: Question time.
GRABER: Us, them, whatever you want.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: OK, hi, I have a question for Bren Smith. Yeah, I’m over here.
GRABER: Right over there.
AM1: OK, so I’m taking marine biology this semester and we actually talked a lot about what you presented on, and we also talked a lot about marine protected areas and how it needs to be a balance between large enough to protect the organisms but small enough to allow fishermen to get a good catch. And I was wondering what you thought was, like, how is—what’s the right way to find the perfect size where there are enough larvae and fish like leaving the protected area, but enough that are protected?
SMITH: Absolutely, I mean I’d actually come at it a little differently. So I say to a lot of the ocean conservationists that they’re not environmentalists anymore, and I say that because you could set aside the entire ocean as a conservation zone and it’s still going to die. Right? One out of four marine organisms are supposed to go extinct because of climate change. Unless you have engines of restoration in the ocean, you’re not addressing the climate crisis, let alone food and food security and jobs and things like that. So my vision is what I call a Napa Valley of merroir, where you have small scale farms dotting our coastlines, surrounded by conservation zones. We have seafood hubs embedded in poor communities that need the jobs, a hatchery, a ring of institutional buyers: the universities, the large companies, and then a ring of social entrepreneurs. And that’s a reef, like I think of it as a green wave reef and then you replicate that every 200 miles up and down your coast. There is also the possibility, and we’re working on this, of embedding our farms into wind farms. So why just harvest wind when you can do food, fuel, fertilizers, in those same spaces and just use those small, industrialized—well, not small, but more efficiently.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Hi, this question is for Bren. I really liked your presentation and I found that map that you had with seaweed and the scallops and the fish really interesting, but I was wondering if you could talk more about the seafood animals in that map, like, what is the role they have in your farming? Do they interact with each other, do they have some sort of role in the kelp farming?
SMITH: This is besides the kelp and the shellfish? Or also the shellfish?
AM2: You had that map earlier, with the—I guess with the scallops and the—
SMITH: Yeah, so all the oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, also pulling nitrogen out. Mussels actually have—do a lot of carbon work and they—it’s a great lean protein packed full of omega 3s. So every one of them are their own agents of restoration and we’re actually trying to figure out what does the whole farm do as a whole. What’s fascinating is we get different growth rates on one side of the farm to the other and that means we’re soaking up so much nitrogen that it’s actually affecting growth. And that’s a really good thing, because we have way too much nitrogen in our ocean. And then all of our crops are also spawning, right? So what we try to do is under-harvest and over-produce so that all of our shellfish and all of our seaweeds are feeding the local reef system and it gets bigger and larger and more productive and we’re only pulling out a small section in order to run our business.
MUSEUM OF SCIENCE STAFF: Our next question is back here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Hi, I have a kelp question. So is kelp—are the kelp noodles mainstream or is it only like, in the shops of those chefs who are using them? Like, is this something that a regular person can go and buy?
SMITH: Yeah so our problem right now is—so I thought it was going to take forever to get people to eat this stuff. Realize, I thought it would take 10 years and the exact opposite happened. So our demand is through the roof, we don’t have enough farmers. We could be—just in my area we could be doing like one to three million pounds of kelp. And we have, we’ve got over 150 restaurants that want, that have put in orders and then huge institutional buyers like the Unilevers, the Googles, things like that. And then all the universities and the elementary schools really want it because that’s the way you attract kids now is good food, right? It wouldn’t have worked with me. But so we don’t even know the—we’re selling out, everything is pre-ordered. We’re going to have some for sale on our website on greenwave.org at the end of this harvest season so basically in about three weeks. All of that money goes back into Green Wave to train farmers. We’ve got 14 farms coming online, I’ve got an eleventh generation fisherman now growing kelp and being made fun of every day. But so we’re racing to solve that problem and then the supply will catch up.
GRABER: Soon, soon.
SMITH: Yeah. And look for our Seashine, we’re developing kelp moonshine, which is going to be delicious.
GRABER: I think that’s a good idea—I totally want it.
SMITH: Still a fisherman, you know.
MoS STAFF: We have the next question over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: This question kind of piggybacks off that in terms of just, you know, what you foresee in terms of growth. And then also you mentioned that you have a farm in Long Island Sound I think and where—does it matter geographically where these farms are? Are there certain, you know, water conditions or, you know, depths that have to do with where you’re going put something? And also how do you deal with the ocean conservation, like, side of things and, you know, how do you go about purchasing 20 acres of ocean to farm?
AM4: Thank you.
SMITH: That’s a lot of questions, which is great but I dropped out of high school. So I mean one point everybody, you know, says what about dirty water, alright, and it’s a great question. We have two kinds of farms, one we grow in pristine waters, and shellfish and seaweeds grown in the US are the most regulated food in the country, it’s the most traceable, water is tested weekly, you know? We just have to because it’s a live product and the oysters govern that regulatory regime. And that’s a good thing. I mean, you wish your arugula was treated like our crops. But then we farm in polluted areas. We actually do pollution farming, so in the Bronx and places like that, just to soak up heavy metals, just to soak up nitrogen and carbon and that doesn’t go into the food system, that can actually go into the biofuel system.
The White House just hired a seaweed czar. Yeah, it’s getting weird out there. And that could either not go in the food system or it could just stay in the water, right? And our farmers should be rewarded for those ecosystem services. So what we’re pulling out of the water, whether it’s nitrogen trading or carbon trading, every other jerk is polluting, we’re actually doing good things and we should be rewarded for that.
And I’ll just say real quick on the leases, the leases are 25 bucks an acre to own a lease. It’s stunning. It’s just, with $20,000, 20 acres and a boat you can start your own farm first year. That’s why we won BFI, because it’s cheap, it’s replicable. I call it the nail salon model. Minimal inputs, minimal skills, and you suddenly have agency and you can be a farmer. But you don’t own your land, you own the right to grow shellfish and seaweed in that area. Anybody can do anything else, that’s why they can boat, fish, you can commercially fish, you can lobster. We own the process, not the property and that’s so important in order to keep our oceans, you know, the commons. We’re not gonna be people building big, giant farms at sea and then blocking people out.
GRABER: Seriously, my partner Tim left the evening wanting to invest in a seaweed farm. Bren is like a magician. You just end up thinking that seaweed will solve so many problems—and it tastes awesome.
TWILLEY: Plus my favorite fact of the evening, which Bren told us before we went on stage: turns out that when they blanch the kelp strands in boiling water, you can skim off the slime, and—get this— he actually sells that slime to a California company that makes natural lube. Kelp really can solve every problem.
GRABER: Clean the water, feed the world, and liven up the bedroom.
GRABER: This was just a little taste of the magic of a Gastropod live event. If you’d like to host us, we’d like to hear from you—email us at contact at gastropod dot com and we can talk through what it would take to make this happen in your town or city.
GRABER: Thanks so much to Bren Smith, of Thimble Island Ocean Farm. And also of course thanks to the folks at the Boston Museum of Science who invited us to perform. We’ll be back there in next spring, so keep your eye out for tickets.
TWILLEY: Last time tickets sold out in two seconds—I’m hardly even exaggerating! So you might want to sign up for our email list, for advanced notice. You can add your name at gastropod dot com.