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Autonomous Aquaculture: A Sustainable Seaweed Future

We want to change the eating habits of millions of hungry New Yorkers by autonomously growing seaweed in the local offshore area.

Photo of Mirjam Fürth
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Stevens Institute of Technology

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

City and Design, other

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.stevens.edu

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Hoboken, New Jersey

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

New York City and New York Bight region

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

New York City (NYC) sits directly across the Hudson River from Stevens Institute of Technology, where our team is based. This proximity was a major draw for many of us to join Stevens as students and faculty, and we each have a unique relationship with NYC that has lasted most of our lives. Four of our team members were born and raised outside of the United States, all hailing from different countries on three continents. The other members, who come from different US states, have immediate family history that can be traced through New York. Despite our differences in place and culture, we all grew up with a strikingly common perception of NYC as a beacon of opportunity, a cultural melting pot, and a place where new trends emerge and spread across the globe.

Not surprisingly, Stevens has a rich history of innovation and collaborative research projects that center around NYC, its people, and the waters surrounding the city. Stevens, known as “The Innovation University,” is named after a family of inventors who were based in NYC and nearby parts of New Jersey, and who contributed to the development and designs of early steamboats, racing yachts, locomotives, and railroad tracks. More recently, the Davidson Laboratory and Ocean Engineering program have become known for their expertise in monitoring the water conditions in the nearby rivers and off the coast of NYC. As a result of Stevens’ close relationship with NYC and its focus on technology and innovation, Stevens is now home to top academic programs in ocean engineering, systems engineering, and socio-technical systems.

Our team members’ lives all revolve in some way around NYC. Some of us call NYC home, while others of us live in nearby New Jersey, but we all converge on NYC regularly for entertainment, cultural events, conferences and meetings, and other career-related opportunities. NYC is at once both our home and our inspiration, and it is an ideal starting place for an innovative food system of the future.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

New York City (NYC) is one of the most diverse cities in the world with a population of over 8 million people ready to embrace new trends. NYC is generally considered to be one of the top food cities in the world—a place where food is of particular emphasis for its residents. From streetside food vendors to 3-star Michelin restaurants, food is a central part of everyday life in the city. With a broad range of domestic and international cuisine and an already huge demand for novel, trendy, and diverse cuisines, NYC has a large market potential for new food sources.

If you asked a sample of New Yorkers “Do you cook?”, you might be surprised how few people give a positive answer. However, in the city that never sleeps, many people work long hours, have small kitchens and live far from grocery stores. Thus, New Yorkers spend 130% more money eating out than the average American, according to a CBRE May 2019 retail report.

Despite the vibrant food scene and countless restaurants in the city, many New Yorkers face food-related health issues. This is often related to the prevalent wealth gap that exists in the City: according to FoodBankNYC, 1.7 million people are living below the poverty line, with 1.2 million being food insecure. When money is scarce, nutrition often suffers, as cheap and readily available food is typically high in calories but low nutrition. Developing healthier, more accessible food sources and transitioning people to healthier diets is essential for a more sustainable NYC.

Located in the estuary of the Hudson River, NYC consists of five boroughs with several islands and numerous waterways. Influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, the climate of the area is moderate throughout most of the year, while occasionally experiencing freezing cold or extreme heat. While there may be hurricanes in the late summer and nor’easters during the winter, the waters around the city are typically calm, and water temperatures year-round range from 2°C to 26°C, which is favorable for a variety of seaweed.

NYC is a dense urban area with no space for large-scale farming. While the average food products are brought in from 1,500 miles away, the immediate surrounding areas do fulfill some portion of the city’s food demand. However, due to the relatively warm water temperature, the potential for the barely tapped aquaculture is huge. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has specified call areas for development offshore. A local production chain will not only benefit the city itself, but could also expand supplies to the south and east.

As a progressive community, New Yorkers are at the forefront of seeking new business opportunities and embracing cutting-edge trends, culture, and technology. Many people move to NYC with this idea in mind, as it is a big part of the American Dream. NYC is an ideal place to introduce and expand a revolutionary new food system that drastically address some of the major challenges facing its population and the planet as a whole.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

1213

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

8500000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment: One of the largest factors affecting global food systems is climate change. Changes in CO2 levels are leading to unprecedented shifts in climate worldwide, as well as ocean acidification where the composition of our marine ecosystems is irrevocably changing. The acidification and average water temperature increase has significant effects on marine life. Environmental impacts for design of marine structures should also be considered to protect aqualife such as whales living nearby that face threats of entanglement with mooring lines.

Diets: Today’s American diet is notoriously unhealthy, which can be partially attributed to culture as well as the poor nutritional content of the most readily available and inexpensive foods. A CDC survey found that 37% of American adults eat fast food daily. They also reported that most Americans eat too many grains, added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, and three quarters of Americans do not eat sufficient fruits and vegetables. As a result of this and generally sedentary lifestyles, the CDC estimates that 72% of U.S. adults over age 20 are overweight, and 40% are obese.

Economics: Despite the wealth in many parts of NYC, food insecurity for low income families is increasing; today, 13% of Americans and 14.4% of New Yorkers suffer from food insecurity. The USDA reported that in the last year overall food prices increased by 2.1%, and this rate is expected to increase in the years leading to 2050.

Technology: To advance from today’s technology to what is needed for an autonomous aquaculture system of 2050, significant advances are needed in designing, powering, and controlling such systems. These systems will also need to be designed with new seaweed farming techniques, as current methods are hazardous to marine life; whales and turtles run the risk of getting entangled in nets and lines.

Policy: Installing autonomous seaweed aquaculture platforms between today and 2050 will require governmental corporation for permitting and transportation. Some policy challenges will arise with the locations of platforms, to ensure that shipping lanes and other ocean enterprises, as well as marine ecosystems, are not negatively impacted. International and federal rules, such as NOAA’s guidelines, must also be followed and updated in accordance with new technologies and trends. Additionally, future public investment (e.g., incentives, subsidies, and loan programs) for the seaweed economy can play a key role in supporting its growth.

Culture: American diets have traditionally steered clear of seaweed in its various forms, and today seaweed is not a common part of the food culture. For some, there may be a cultural aversion to seaweed, while others may simply not know how to incorporate seaweed into their daily diets. Our food vision faces the challenge of encouraging and enabling Americans to embrace seaweed as a viable, nutrient-rich food source by 2050.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The most critical challenges facing our food system are those relating to the environment. Our vision addresses increased CO2 levels in two ways. Growing seaweed locally reduces CO2 directly through capture by the plant itself, and indirectly through reduced needs for long distance transportation of the food that the local seaweed displaces. By growing some produce offshore, land-based agriculture is reduced, which has additional CO2 reduction benefits. Another indirect benefit for the environment is seaweed’s potential for use as a biofuel, which has far lower emissions than traditional fuels.

As for the diets of those within the food system, our vision sees a future with affordable, healthy produce. By producing a product with a great nutritional profile that can grow far more quickly than traditional produce, we can realize this vision. Considering that seaweed is high in Vitamins A, C, E, and K and a good source of iron, it provides an excellent way to improve diets in a culture experiencing record rates of obesity and diabetes.

Due to our close physical relationship to the food system, one of the key economic challenges we would like to address is the local economy. Our system will generate local employment opportunities in marine agricultural, food processing and distribution, and non-food applications.

Culturally, we seek to serve two disparate populations. On one hand, many people, especially those in low income households, experience a lack of healthy, inexpensive sources of nutrients. Seaweed grows incredibly quickly, with some species growing up to two feet per day, allowing for large amounts of inexpensive produce. On the other hand, culinary trends often begin with chefs and restaurants that typically cater to higher-income individuals. These groups set the model around which we base our food perspectives, and by changing their mindset to include seaweed, we hope to eventually change the minds of everyone within the system.

From a technology standpoint, our vision includes a fully researched and vetted power generation system, taking advantage of wave motions to generate sufficient power to properly outfit a remote farm. This involves sensors capable of monitoring farm performance despite waves, growth cycles, and extreme circumstances. Such a system would provide farmers with a reliable way to track production and enable them to expand their farms to include several systems all monitored from a central location.

Looking at policy for 2050, our vision includes public incentives for sustainably produced aquaculture and seaweed food businesses, as well as public investments in the research and development of these technologies as well as seaweed-based biofuels, medicine, and other applications. Finally, government bodies and standards organizations at the local, state, national, and international levels will support the placement, protection, and environmental standards of autonomous aquaculture platforms.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The dinner plate of the future will be robust in content and nutrition. By introducing local seaweed production to eateries, New Yorkers will engage in menu sampling and begin to change what they eat. They will start adapting to eating seaweed. As they eat seaweed in restaurants and their food deliveries, they will start to see it as an option when they shop for the meals they cook at home. Hopefully, as New Yorkers continue reducing their food footprint and cooking at home to eat healthier, there will be a large shift in diets towards seaweed. As seaweed is consumed, an entire industry will develop around the production, processing, and distribution of seaweed.

Not only will jobs in the food industry transform to meet the changing demand, local jobs will be created as seaweed production increases. People will work producing seaweed in the New York Bight, and they will spread awareness and desire for seaweed products among their neighbors. New Yorkers are minutes away from the water at any given moment, yet they do not necessarily feel a connection; being able to look out at the water and realize that your food comes from a few short miles away will heavily affect the culture of any place.

In this future, people are heavily involved with public policy and support regulations that improve the local environment and human health. 2050 can be a time when waterways around NYC are cleaner for healthier marine life and people. A time when people are more engaged in their own lives and can place custom seaweed orders from autonomous floating structures. A time when a food system can also provide power to the city while not impacting endangered species or international commerce. When food systems work in harmony with the local environment, people have healthier diets and lifestyles, and jobs are integrated in the production process of locally grown aquaculture, NYC will be truly sustainable.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Imagine, it is 2050. Sitting in your home in New York City (NYC), you think back to a meal you had at a restaurant or a recipe shared with you by a friend, maybe sushi, ramen, or miyeok guk (Korean seaweed soup). Fortunately, with a single click, you can order a personalized shipment of food-grade seaweed straight from the ocean to your door. You select your species and quantity and complete your order. A drone sets off from its base to fill your order, making its way to a nearby system of aquaculture farms off the New York Bight. The drone docks and, working synchronously with the autonomous systems on the platform and local seaweed farmers, it selects, harvests, packages and picks up the mature seaweed per your order. When it arrives at your door, you can be confident you know the full story behind the food you are preparing for dinner and take comfort knowing that your support is going directly to the local food economy. Technology and societal changes over the past 30 years have contributed to people’s abilities to take control over every aspect of what is on their plate. Transparency is critical to ensuring the population is well educated on not only how their food affects them, but also how their food decisions affect the world around them, both positively and negatively. Our vision of the future has governments placing greater emphasis on supporting not only locally-based food systems, but especially healthy, sustainable food sources that haven’t received as much attention in the past as the traditional food sources of 2020. 

Making a leap to assume that a food system like this will be possible in 2050 may seem unreasonable at first. However, when we consider the massive changes that have occurred between 1990 and today, a radically different 2050 seems less like a dream and more like an inevitability. With the explosion of an internet-of-things culture and personal devices becoming commonplace, daily life has already shifted dramatically in terms of speed of information and communication methods. The NYC of 2020 is vastly more connected in a worldwide sense than the NYC of 1990, with near-instant communication, and this has brought about a growing number of benefits and challenges. Therefore, it stands to reason that by 2050 technology and culture will develop further societal changes with their own challenges and virtues. Our team has created a vision for this future where our influence helps to push us in the direction of increased sustainability in the face of these challenges.

The benefits of employing seaweed as a food source for NYC are extensive, but this system is not without its challenges. In order to start a sustainable seaweed production system, we will need to first overcome several technological hurdles in our way. Developing a system that will work well in the current waterways around New York will involve research and testing on all of the aspects that are necessary for autonomy or remote operation (see attached video). From power systems to hydrodynamic designs to remote sensor processing, robust technology is necessary to ensure a reliable and sustainable farming platform. Investments in this technology will pay off not only with the fundamental knowledge that will be gained through this research, but with the job opportunities that will present themselves and the potential benefits to other offshore systems, such as power generators or monitoring systems. One of the aforementioned challenges will lie in convincing policymakers as well as industry that these investments are worth making and that plant-based aquaculture will have sweeping positive impacts. Job opportunities will exist in every aspect of the platform design, seaweed growth, monitoring, and harvesting, extending on through the rest of the supply chain. This will contribute to our vision addressing the challenge of maintaining a thriving economy, which is especially critical in a place like NYC, where things change incredibly quickly and population density influences nearly every local industry. 

The creation of jobs from aquaculture serves not only the local economy, but a culture of producing and consuming locally, which is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. In our vision, this concept will be pivotal in instigating a necessary perspective shift, which is currently blocking Americans from viewing “nontraditional” foods as a potential part of their diet, regardless of health benefits. The current diets in our food system are a challenge in and of themselves. Many people in low-income situations struggle to afford basic healthy food choices, let alone the locally grown, sustainable choices which are on the rise in the communities privileged enough to be able to afford them. Our team’s vision wants to address the food system as it affects everyone. In order to do so, changes will need to begin in the areas with the largest culinary influences, such as the restaurants and kitchens of the local and internationally recognized chefs in NYC. On top of these niche market influences, we envision eventually reaching areas where many different income groups have the same experiences, such as more affordable restaurants, fast food chains, and school cafeterias. From there, we will be able to turn the next generation to one that views seaweed as a normal food in their daily diets.

To ensure that the challenges presented do not stall progress in the years to come, our team has identified a number of places, or leverage points, that are most in need of external influence to tip the scale from succumbing to overcoming the challenges and creating a sustainable system. The included causal loop diagram shows how interconnected the various aspects of our food system are. The links between each piece of the diagram represent the delicate relationships that must be navigated in order to influence our system for the better in the coming years. One place where the benefits accumulate and the influence is straightforward is with public investment in aquaculture technology. With a strong push from local government for seaweed production, local economic opportunities will open up as jobs are created in aquaculture and all of the secondary and tertiary systems that go along with it. With higher employment rates, social wellbeing increases, and eventually this leads to more public acceptance of seaweed. With more public acceptance, the government can justify further investment in the technologies and economy associated with aquaculture, and the cycle reinforces itself. By identifying this loop, it becomes clear that public investment can create a feedback cycle which then connects to a number of additional loops that create a sort of chain reaction reinforcing themselves. Another leverage point with clear repercussions to help realize our vision is in the populations facing nutrition-related problems such as obesity, diabetes, and malnourishment. One way to directly influence this challenge is to push for a more seaweed-forward diet, especially in the places that are most accessible to these groups, a prime example being public schools. By introducing seaweed to public lunchrooms, the nutritional value of school lunches can be improved, and seaweed will become more culturally acceptable as an everyday food source. This in turn leads to improved societal health, and similarly to improvements in the local economy, followed by improved social wellbeing. Again, a feedback loop is created with better wellbeing leading to even more public acceptance of seaweed, which increases seaweed consumption further, driving down obesity, diabetes, and malnourishment.

To help communicate and visualize our vision and the various outcomes, we organized our thoughts into the attached futures wheel. This diagram demonstrates the primary and secondary effects of promoting the seaweed economy. Through these effects, such as the reduction of atmospheric pollutants, reduced meat consumption and increased local economic opportunities, it becomes clear how our changes will have lasting influences on our food system and the people of NYC in the years to come. Our outlook is positive in light of the various obstacles standing in our way, as the number of beneficial impacts is quite high, with even more unforeseen benefits sure to follow as technology and culture advances. By examining our impacts in this way, it is easy to see why we are so confident and focused on the overall positive impact of our vision.

Our food system vision focuses largely on how changes in our cultural perspective with regards to food can lead to great changes in our environment. However, we believe that one of the best ways to create change is to inspire change through example. In our team’s vision, the people within our food system will not see the changes in the coming years as a massive upheaval of today’s food system; instead, we see a future where everyone within the system sees the impact that small influences can have. With this in mind, more people can take their food system’s future into their own hands. Small changes like this can snowball into larger changes throughout this food system, eventually creating substantial impacts on technology, policy, diets, culture, economics, and the environment. Thinking of sustainability as everyone’s responsibility helps to focus the challenges within the community, and to help this along, transparency and education will be very important to inspire community-wide engagement. These small changes in mindsets and behaviors will have lasting impacts on future people in 2050 and beyond.



How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • From University

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Photo of Mark E Capron
Team

Mirjam,
Would you like to collaborate with the other ocean entries? The Ocean Food Systems and Total Ecosystem Aquaculture teams see the need for a network of ocean food systems groups.

Collaboration actions can be:
• Place a positive comment on the other ocean entries.
• Coordinate via email and/or voice to add other ocean entries in your answer to “If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide…”, add notice of collaborations in other entry text, fill gaps in each other’s entries.
• The OceanForesters invites any collaborating team to excerpt concepts, text, and pictures from its entry for use in their entry. The OceanForesters does not expect any collaborating team to share its winnings with OceanForesters.

Email markcapron at oceanforesters. com and jimstewart at oceanforesters. com for emailing documents or setting up Zoom or Skype calls.
(email addresses are altered in hope of avoiding robots)

We, the OceanForesters, have detected the following ocean food system entries (please invite other ocean seafood entries we might have missed):
• Ocean Gardens (Africa, Canary Islands) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/ocean-garden-s/comments
• Ocean Nourishment (Africa, Senegal) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/ocean-nourishment-increased-sustainable-fish-stocks
• Ocean Orchards (Asia, Malaysia) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/ocean-orchards
• Ocean Food Systems (North America, Maine, USA) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/ocean-food-systems
• Shellfish to Save the World (North America, Maine, USA) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/shellfish-to-save-the-world
• Autonomous Aquaculture: … (North America, New Jersey, USA) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/autonomous-aquaculture-changing-how-seaweed-is-grown-and-eaten
• Sustainable Manjua fishing… (North America, Guatemala) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/sustainable-manjua-fishing-in-the-communities-of-the-caribbean-coasts-of-guatemala
• Marine Forestation of the Shallows … (no location) https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/food-system-vision-prize/open-submission/marine-forestation-of-the-shallows-for-seafood-and-co2

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