Brian von Herzen is the executive director of the Climate Foundation and the original founder of the Marine Permaculture Movement.
With Brian Von Herzen we discussed why kelp, seaweed and ocean regeneration are ready for their breakthrough.
Climate Foundation’s marine permaculture technology has the potential to provide sustainable food, feed, fiber, fertilizer, and biofuels on a global scale, all while enabling carbon export from the atmosphere.
Other useful links
Seaweed ‘forests’ can help fight climate change – National Geographic
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
seaweed, soil, permaculture, kelp forest, carbon, marine, ocean, ecosystems, develop, livestock, opportunity, enable, regenerate, crops, eat, micronutrients, kelp, podcast, sea, hectare
Koen van Seijen, Brian von Herzen
Koen van Seijen 00:00
This interview is a deep dive, literally into the world of marine permaculture and seaweed and why the region ag movement shouldn't stop at the shoreline but continues into our seas and oceans.
Koen van Seijen 00:13
Welcome to another episode of Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative aood and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food, and what we eat, and it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers start paying much more attention to the dirt / soil underneath our feet.
Koen van Seijen 00:51
In March last year, we launched our Patreon community to make it easy for fans to support our work and so many of you have joined as a member, we've launched different types of benefits, exclusive content, Q&A webinars with former guests, ask me anything sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member, check out patreon.com/regenerative_agriculture, or find the link below. Thank you.
Koen van Seijen 01:17
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture". Today I'm joined by Brian von Herzen, executive director of the Climate Foundation, and the original founder of the marine permaculture movement. I'm very interested to dive deeper into something we haven't discussed too much, the seas, the connection from the sees to the soils. Welcome, Brian.
Brian von Herzen 01:35
Oh, thank you. Greetings, Coen. It's a pleasure to be here.
Koen van Seijen 01:38
And to start with a personal question, what brings you to this space? What brings you to seaweed, soils, regen ag? Of all the other research topics, of all the other topics you could have spent your life on?
Brian von Herzen 01:49
Well, nearly two decades ago, we were doing some expeditions across Greenland in a small plane and we noticed the surface of Greenland was melting. And it was a very small melt ponds to begin with, but each year that we crossed the size of the melt ponds were increasing, doubling in size. After a couple years, they were calling them melt lakes. And then by 2012 97% of the surface of Greenland melted. And we realized even in the early 2000s, that we had to do something sustainable to try to address this exponential increase in melting. And that led me to do a sabbatical in Woods Hall in studying algae biology and carbon bio-geo chemistry, and then beyond that to really consider how can we enlist life to help us rebalance carbon in our seas and our soils.
Koen van Seijen 02:45
And you work on a lot of different topics. I'm definitely going to link your website and a lot of your talks below. But in this case, this conversation, I would like to focus on the finance side of things, the investor side of things, because I know a lot of listeners will be very excited after - I hope, at least - after this interview. So I hope that we can give them some direction and some focus. So I would like to ask a question on basically you're mentioning the connection between the mountains and the sea. And I think it's something we focus a lot on the soil and on the land side of things. Why is that connection between the mountains and the sea, so important?
Brian von Herzen 03:20
The mountains help the sea and the sea helps the mountains or I should say the soils. So I just finished giving a talk here in Morocco, where I was visiting with the government, and we met with some of the agriculture and some of the aquaculture groups here in agencies. And it was very interesting because I spoke about my home state of California, where we've studied the kelp forests. And you know, there's a shifting baseline. No one has a living memory of the kelp forests that were off the coast of California in the mid 1800s. But we went back and did the research to find the original US Geodetic Survey maps from 1850s, 1860s, 1880s, which showed a river of a kelp a kilometer wide extending from Point Concepcion, hundreds of kilometers all the way past the border with Mexico. And this was a continuous river of kelp between 10 and 25 meter in depth that was covering the coastline, and it was this incredible bounty of nature. Now what happened was, in the early 1900s, we had development of farming, urbanization, but primarily the loss of soil and runoff. That went into the sea because of standard farming practices, and that was exacerbated later, and between the silt and the nutrients, the visibility in the water dropped precipitously, and this actually choked off the juvenile kelp from growing from a depth of 25 meters to the surface. If they don't have enough sunlight, they can't grow all the way to the surface. If they can't grow, they don't survive. And so we lost the deep kelps and we lost some of the middle kelps, and so now we only have a small remnant of the forest that wants was. And so this is how our farming practices can affect the sea and the sea clarity, and so if we do less runoff and more regenerative farming we can actually have a much clearer ocean.
Brian von Herzen 05:12
And then conversely, the seaweeds have this incredible input, a catalytic input almost, on the growth of crops, both as a soil amendment and also as a seaweed folio biostimulant. And in several other ways, for example, as a feed supplement for ruminant livestock, we can cut most of the methane of the entire conditions of ruminant livestock. So there's so many ways the sea gives back to the farm and gives back to the soil. And I think it's a full circle, circular value chain, if you will.
Koen van Seijen 05:43
And I mean, there's so much to unpack there, let's start with because I've seen and heard a number of farmers talk about seaweed on their farm ao to basically bring seaweed which has been grown at the sea, obviously, to the farm as a soil amendment, as you mentioned. And is that happening at scale? And if not, what would be necessary to really kickstart that part of the industry, which I think to farmers looks very interesting, because it is that full circle of maybe some of the old runoff that was captured by the seaweed and now no longer has run off because they're doing regenerative farming but they still need some of those input back basically to kickstart their system. Is that something you see on a small scale and if so, what would be necessary to really scale that up?
Brian von Herzen 06:24
There is small scale incorporation of kelp and seaweeds off the coast of California for example, and to some extent utilized in Australian permaculture as well. Where the helps in the seaweeds provide micronutrients, they provide polysaccharides, growth stimulants, the natural Gibberelins and Auxins and Cytokinins that help plants grow exist in seaweed. And so scientists and researchers have had a hard time isolating a single compound that does it, there seems to be a synergy between polysaccharides, beneficial proteins, plant growth regulation, and micronutrients that together have a transformative effect on the production in the soil. We've seen peer reviewed literature citing to 11% increase in rice, 20% increase in vegetables, 40% increase in eggplants, and one or two published studies showing 56% increase in yields on soybeans. And this is using seaweed fullier biostimulants. Now that's a very small application rate, it's only a few liters per acre, or maybe four liters per hectare. But even at these very low rates, there are significant yield increases in agriculture. Then furthermore, there's a notion of a soil amendment, the mulch, the compost, and that would be a larger application of solid seaweeds. And as long as you can manage, you know, these very small levels the salinity is not a factor and you can track it at larger levels as well. And I think those are key areas. But you know, in terms of scale today Ascophyllum Rockweed is harvested from Maine, from Canada, from Iceland, even parts of Europe and has been used in relatively large quantity in, I would call them the seaweed soil amendments and whatnot, that are used a fair amount in commercial and personal farms today. So that's a good starting point. But you know, this northern seaweed has different effects than the tropical red seaweeds, and the tropical brown seaweeds, and even some of the Kelps. So I think that there are different types of seaweed and the right combination of seaweed for particular plants is going to be a key opportunity to develop in the months and years ahead.
Koen van Seijen 08:41
So you would see a lot of opportunity in basically mixing and trying to find the right recipe for the right type of crop or cropland basically to mix or to connect them better.
Brian von Herzen 08:55
Yes, in particular what we're noticing is that seaweed does a fantastic job of increasing the stress resistance of the plants. And that includes resistance to heat, resistance to drought, and resistance to disease. And, you know, all crops have some amount of stress, but when we get into a global warming situation, the amount of heat stress and the amount of drought becomes severe, and the seaweeds have been able to confer stress resistance to these crops very substantially. It's one of the best approaches, and we're noticing that the tropical red and the tropical brown seaweeds are particularly effective at some of these stress resistance increases.
Koen van Seijen 09:38
And does it change the flavor?
Brian von Herzen 09:40
No, not at all.
Koen van Seijen 09:41
I mean, does it improve it, maybe? Or?
Brian von Herzen 09:43
Well that's a good question. So if you look at the micronutrient levels of our vegetables over the last few decades, we've lost most of the micronutrients of the vegetables due to this leaching. And you know seaweeds have every element in nature in some abundance in their composition. So when you put the seaweed back into the soil, and even at these very small quantities, you're getting these micronutrients that can help to actually regenerate the micronutrient value of our vegetables. So I think there is an enormous value there. And I would, you know, we like to use seaweed for food, feed, and fertilizer. And I think yes, it's great for the soil and micronutrients, and that part was fine. And then we're also seeing amazing superfood properties of eating small amounts of seaweed every day. I mean, every time I go surfing, I'm eating seaweed when I'm out there. You know, it's clean water, and I've got some kelp or some seaweed that are rooted to the rocks out there. There's 14,000 species to try and nearly all of them edible, and most to my knowledge, in fact almost all of them are non toxic.
Koen van Seijen 10:18
And I think that's a, let's say, the nutrient density of food. And the connection to healthy soil is something that comes back in these podcasts a lot of times, and I think it's potentially one of the keys to unlock the sector and to really get the consumer or at least the food sector, more and more interested in healthy soils.
Brian von Herzen 11:08
That is so true. I think, you know, seaweed as a nutraceutical has been absolutely amazing. I just finished meeting with some researchers in Europe that have studied the effects of seaweed for many diseases. One study I saw in the US that was about Asia showed, of course, on a country wide basis, about seven times less breast cancer in countries like Thailand and Japan. And furthermore, in a mouse model for breast cancer, they observed 10 to 20 times lower tumor incidence and breast cancer when a small amount of seaweed was added to the water supply of these mice. And that was very substantial, because otherwise the diets were identical. And so they were able to reproduce this cancer effectiveness. The seaweed was very surprising. The European studies focused on Alzheimer's models for for mice, and they had these mouse models for Alzheimer's, and these are elderly mice. And, you know, we're not able, in this advanced stage of the disease, we're unable to remember how to get through a maze. But when they added a moderate amount of seaweed to the water supply to these mice, they actually recovered the ability of short term memory to understand how to get through the maze. And so these neuroprotective benefits and other health benefits of seaweed have been amazing to read about in the peer reviewed literature.
Koen van Seijen 12:39
I think we can I mean, this is absolutely fascinating, we can probably spend two hours just as food or seaweed as medicine. But if the advantages, and many of these actually have been clear for a while, and a lot of this research is coming up now, but like the ecosystem services, the potential of cleaning up a lot of the leaching etc. has been known for quite a while, maybe not to the extent and also not to the extent of how much seaweed there actually was, or in this cases, the kelp forests in California. I think we all suffer from that nobody can imagine anymore how full the Mediterranean was with lifem as it is nobody has seen it in their lifetime. And what is stopping this gigantic, let's say regeneration of even just our coastal areas, if the advantages and the returns in all different aspects, not just financial, are so enormous? What do you see as the biggest barriers?
Brian von Herzen 13:30
Well, first of all, there's a nutrient barrier and that's what we studied about the ecosystems. If we go back to the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago, we find that the development of that Permian extinction was associated with warming and stratification of the oceans. And as the oceans warm, 93% of global warming is going into the oceans, we create this stratified layer of water and that forms a barrier to the upwelling that provides nutrients to algae. And so the normal amount of offshore winds would normally bring the water up to the surface and cause the overturning circulation, and enable the seaweed to grow. And that gets shut down when the ocean gets too warm. And so we saw that in the Permian extinction where 96% of all marine life went extinct. And according to the recent studies, we've already lost 2% of the oxygen in the ocean. And so we're 2% of the way towards the Permian extinction. And the question is, can we stop it and reverse it one kelp forest at a time using this kind of overturning principle. And you know, this would apply from the Mediterranean to the tropical oceans, even the subtropics.
Koen van Seijen 14:40
So basically, what you're saying is there's this layer of water in the oceans or in the seas which is blocking the nutrient rich sub layer to come up basically. And that's what you're working on in marine permaculture right? To reverse that.
Brian von Herzen 14:54
We are! We look to, you know, in the tropics they use marine solar energy, also waves in the ocean and even wind energy in the higher latitudes, to restore overturning circulation. We have pipes that come up from below the thermocline, we can provide up to a million cubic meters of seawater per day to a larger seaweed permaculture and effectively enable the irrigation 12 months a year of a seaweed forest and enable it to grow at least as much as it did under natural conditions pre-industrially.
Koen van Seijen 14:57
Yeah so you're building this big pumps, as I'm imagining them and I've seen your videos, to basically pump up this water or bring up this water from underneath this blockage? You've been doing that in different places? What are the results? How fast is this? What is the impact also beyond just the area around the pump?
Brian von Herzen 15:43
Well, the first places we tested were in Hawaii. And then from there, we went on and won the blue economy challenge from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And there, they provided us with resources needed to do a small test system in Indonesia. And in Indonesia, we found that with irrigation, the seaweeds were able to grow more than 2% per day, whereas without the irrigation, it was less than 2%. Now we're replicating those results. And in the Philippines, and in the future, we hope to also do this testing with macrocystis brown caps off Tasmania where we've been working with the University of Tasmania, and our partners at 2040 and the Intrepid Foundation.
Koen van Seijen 16:26
And this sounds like a proof of concept. What is needed to get this to market and needed to scale as we're hopefully getting to a lot of investors and entrepreneurs through this podcast. What do you see as the next steps to really make this widely available?
Brian von Herzen 16:43
We'll be moving over the next year from a small platform to a hectare scale platform. and with hectare in place, we'll be able to do so much more and really demonstrate the economics of scaling 200 hectares and more. We're very happy to have the support of Jeremy Grantham and his contributions have enabled us to really develop the marine permaculture up to a hectare scale. So we're looking forward to developing that initially in the Philippines, and then showing that it works in temperate latitudes, such as Tasmania, once we permit it with the authorities there, and then furthermore to develop it in key countries like Indonesia, where there are more than 2 million seaweed farmers, they grow hectares of seaweed, but they're on the frontlines of climate disruption and the warm layer of water is preventing a lot of production. During the marine heatwave of 2016 over 60% of the yield of the seaweed farms was lost and over half of the seaweed farms were abandoned on some islands in Indonesia. So we have to help recover that and the subsistence seaweed farmers there. In Indonesia, we really need to develop that capability so that the Indonesian farmers can have the climate resilience that's built into the irrigation provided with deep sea water marine permaculture.
Koen van Seijen 18:07
Now, just as a background, Jeremy Grantham is the founder, one of the founders of GMO, which is a big asset manager which has nothing to do with GMO agriculture, but his foundation has been very active in climate solutions. And I think he committed over a billion dollars recently to the climate change fight. And then secondly, I think so basically you could almost see this as you're partnering with seaweed farmers, to enable them to be more climate resistant by basically growing more or up to the original level or maybe beyond of what they were growing, but they already have a market, so that's not a part you have to develop for the seaweed because they have offtake, but they are being threatened by climate change and by changing oceans around them, basically.
Brian von Herzen 18:48
Yes, marine permaculture irrigation is a new product for an existing market. It's over $10 billion industry already in Asia. And we see huge opportunities to develop these technologies further for regions of Europe, including the Mediterranean, including the tropical Atlantic and tropical and subtropical Pacific oceans.
Koen van Seijen 19:08
And just the benefits of what do you envision in the Mediterranean as it seems, not only for Europe, but it seems like an enormous hotspot the next decade or decades for climate change. I heard Morocco is going up five degrees, in terms of refugees, climate change, stress, agriculture, and obviously water. What would you envision that we could do in the next decade?
Brian von Herzen 19:31
Well imagine regenerating life in the Mediterranean, we aspire to restoring the sardines in Sardinia, we aspire to effectively creating the upwelling that's going to enable the seaweed forests to thrive, the creation of fish habitat, and ultimately this bootstraps the sardines, the forage fish populations, and the game fish and even the apex predators. We have the opportunity to regenerate life in the oceans. I Imagine that, you know, the sardines might have been named after the island of Sardinia? And wouldn't it be great if we could regenerate those sardine fisheries from, you know, from Israel all the way across to Spain and Portugal?
Koen van Seijen 20:14
And if you would, let's imagine there's a theater full of active impact investors, people that are enthusiastic about regen ag, are enthusiastic about marine permaculture. What would you tell them without giving investment advice obviously, but what would you tell them, where to look? What kind of questions to ask if they see things? Because for sure, they've been approached by algae companies, seaweed companies, it's the future left and right, etc. What would you advise them to look out for, what kind of questions to ask when getting into this part of the regen ag sector?
Brian von Herzen 20:47
Well, I think there's a key opportunity and that is developing new products for existing industries - and that's one reason we've been doing a lot of work in irrigation and seaweed farms - but beyond that, we're looking at a $350 billion agricultural input market, a $600 billion nutraceutical market, and an $800 billion cosmetics market. And seaweed has a central role to play in all of those. We find time and again we're supply limited as to how much kelp, how much red seaweed, we can actually produce. There's a global shortage of Kappaphycus seaweed for example and the prices have doubled over the last year or two. And this is associated with a decreased production associated with higher temperatures in the tropics. So we've got a key opportunity, and that is to regenerate that production, enable the industry to get going again and to thrive, and then to further develop these markets as the research is coming out on the nutraceutical side, we can improve the health span, and I would say the cognitive health span, of so many people around the world that need to move from a Western diet to something that's much more on the omega three side. And keep in mind these, these algae are the original source of long chain omega three fatty acids, the sardines get it from the algae. So the original source is actually a vegetarian source.
Koen van Seijen 22:01
So it's a you can go directly to the source and skipping the whole fish process in the middle.
Brian von Herzen 22:06
Well you can for those I mean, there's half a half a billion vegetarians in India alone. So imagine vegetarians around the world who can improve their nutrition by a suitable addition of seaweeds from around the world as well. And locally.
Koen van Seijen 22:22
And you mentioned somewhere in an interview I listened to actually, you're looking for positive outliers. Can you explain a bit of a concept behind that? And how do you find them, what kind of framework you have to look for these outliers?
Brian von Herzen 22:36
Well, I remember, after the Vietnam War, there was a serious problem with starvation and children and I remember that some physicians went to Vietnam and they noticed that a few of the children were not being given more food, but they weren't starving. And they did a lot of interviewing and eventually discovered a positive outlier. And there were several actually, one is that the mothers of these children were giving them four half bowls of rice per day, rather than two cups of rice per day. And so the more frequent meals and smaller portions were helpful, but they were also grabbing little bits of shrimp and crab that were growing in the rice fields. And they were adding this little bit of protein to the top of the rice. And that tiny bit of additional protein in minute quantities was sufficient to actually enable muscle building and development and all these other things. And so these tiny little bits of protein had a substantial effect, as well. And so these were examples in a medical context, and nutrition context where the positive outliers were key.
Brian von Herzen 23:43
But we also think in terms of ecosystems. The kelp forest is the tropical rainforest of so many countries, including Morocco, including California, including Australia. You look to the Brazilian rainforest in the Amazon for being one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and it's able to fix approximately 2200 grams of carbon per square meter per year. But what's fascinating to me is that the kelp forests in their natural setting are actually fixing 2500 grams of carbon, in some cases, all the way up to 3000 grams of carbon per square meter per year. And that means that the actual carbon flux is higher in the kelp forests than it is in the tropical rainforest. Now some of it gets eaten and respired and returns to the air. But the fact that this natural ecosystem is capturing more carbon than the tropical rainforest is really substantial and the fact that we could find, with marine permaculture substrate and marine permaculture upwelling, we can take this beautiful ecosystem at the edge of the of the ocean and apply it to the entire 300 kilometers of the exclusive economic zone of so many countries from Morocco to parts of Europe to the Americas and on to Asia. United Nations talks about small island developing states, SIDS nations, and yet, more recently, people have been calling them big ocean nations, because even a small island nation could have several million square kilometers of a big ocean around them. And so this is a huge opportunity for coastal nations around the world to embrace the regeneration of life in the sea, to rebuild the seaweed forests, regenerate fish habitat, and regenerate the sardine fisheries and the forage fisheries that 3 billion people on the planet rely upon for their primary source of protein. So it's a big opportunity to really understand how can we use these natural processes to regenerate life on the earth. And I consider really understanding the kelp forest and seaweed ecosystems to be central, positive outliers, examples of how nature has done a great job with fixing carbon during the last millennia and millions of years.
Koen van Seijen 26:01
Wow, again, so much to unpack but I'd like to ask two questions. One, can you explain a bit how the carbon is stored? You mentioned some obviously is getting eaten, some of it is not being stored permanently, but also some of it is being stored permanently? And then I would like to ask a second question on what's the risk? What's the catch? So to stay in the theme? It sounds too good to be true, it sounds amazing, what is holding it back? Is it so difficult to build these things at scale because maybe oceans are very rough? What is the biggest risk or barrier you see? but let's first start with the carbon storage.
Brian von Herzen 26:38
Professor Carlos Duarte has published some papers studying, from Kaust University studying how the global seaweed forests export carbon, not locally, but into the middle and deep ocean. Because of course, seaweed drifts and it drifts into the middle and into the deeper ocean, and then it sinks. And so very naturally, some 11% or more of the kelp is stored that way. But beyond that, when we actually look to harvesting seaweed at sea, and there's some work in Europe on developing the bio refinery, which will actually provide from the seaweed harvest, sustainable partial harvest, a bounty of nutraceuticals, high value proteins, polysaccharides, and cellulose and other carbon. This produces a, let's say, a cascade of valuable products that come from the seaweed. And whatever the seaweed does not use, let's say we use half of it for food, and half of it would be seaweed residues, the leftover seaweed that's not utilized can be sunk into the middle of deep ocean providing a true blue carbon sink. And that could be well over 11%, you might even most of the seaweed harvest, more than 50% could be residues that the seaweed leftovers would be sunk to the middle and deep ocean, in a period of perhaps even two days, it would go below 1000 meters. The typical seaweed can drop about 500 meters per day, once it's been processed, and so with the bubbles collapsed in the seaweed, it'll sink 500 meters a day and then in two days it's below 1000 meters. And our physical oceanographer colleagues have identified that the medium timed outcropping for water that's 1000 meters and deeper, is 100 to 4000 years. And so that range provides the basis for developing United Nations carbon credits, where with 100 years as the threshold, for developing those. So it presents a distinct opportunity to sink substantial amounts of carbon while we're at the same time feeding the world and feeding natural ecosystems.
Koen van Seijen 28:40
And so what's the risk? What do you see as the biggest risk as the interest grows obviously, a lot of people just like in regen ag on land are going to jump on this. Which means cover, which means projects and things not done well, it means a lot of pitch decks and a lot of floating numbers that promise a lot of things. What do you see from your experience and being in this space for so long? And probably you've seen and spoken to almost everyone? And what do you see as the biggest risk?
Brian von Herzen 29:08
Well in the Americas today, and perhaps in Europe, as well, there are some regions near shore that occasionally have harmful algal blooms. And if there were harmful algal blooms already occurring, then marine permaculture upwelling operation could potentially exacerbate those. So we need to monitor for the presence or growth of harmful algal blooms upstream and then monitor downstream as well. And if there's a situation where there's an exacerbation or a problem is getting worse, then the marine permaculture can be turned off, and then that would remove the increase of harmful algal bloom. So monitoring for those situations would be important near shore, further from shore, the incidence of those harmful algal blooms is far lower, so it'd be less of a problem. But that's an example where by developing a strong marine permaculture industry association we'll be able to advise on best practices around the world and ensure that we can develop a strong industry association that commits to best practices, and is able to regulate the industry well enough within the association to avoid the need for over regulation because, you know, ultimately we need to do well for the planet while we're actually doing well for the economics as well.
Koen van Seijen 30:22
And I'd like to be conscious of your time and end with a number of questions, which usually take up quite a bit of time. So we're hopefully going to finish on time. And what if you could wave a magic wand and tomorrow morning, we wake up and you've changed one thing in the agriculture or aquaculture, lets say food industry, what would that be?
Brian von Herzen 30:41
Well, I think we would have the opportunity to work a lot more holistically with our food sources. I think we need to move towards a more vegetarian lifestyle. And that means vegetables on land, and vegetables in the sea. And the sea vegetables, there's so many to choose from, I think that's really a key part of this. And as we move towards a somewhat more vegetarian lifestyle with treating, you know, meat becomes a condiment rather than the main course, I think that's an opportunity to really change the way humans eat. You know, Kofi Annan, as UN Secretary General said: If there's one thing we could possibly do, it would be to eat one vegetarian meal per week. And not because that by itself would make such a big difference. But it would enable people to realize how tasty a vegetarian meal could be. And I think that's really key, because once I've learned how great vegetarian meals can be, I mean, half the meals I eat are vegetarian. I'm not 100% vegetarian, but it's a great way to reduce impact. And I'm reminded of some other sayings. Gandhi, I believe, said, you know, the earth has enough for everyone's need, but not a single person's greed. And if we apply that to a more vegetarian lifestyle, I think that is really significant because we have enough food already to feed 10 billion people on this planet. But if we can simply reduce the intensity of the meat production, then so much of that productivity can go towards feeding the entire planet, and having enough food leftover for nature to ensure regeneration of those ecosystems.
Koen van Seijen 32:24
And to stay a bit in the the livestock discussion, actually, you briefly mentioned and I know there's quite a bit of research now, on the methane obviously, of livestock or ruminant livestock, and the potential of seaweed there. Can you briefly explain why that is important and how that came about and where we are, let's say as a sector, are we close to feeding it easily to cows or not? What's the story on the methane, seaweed and livestock?
Koen van Seijen 32:50
Yes, first of all, it's important to realize that the methane that we emit each year has a bigger impact on our climate than the CO2 that's being emitted each year. And that's because the methane that's being emitted has a multiplier of 28, or 50, or 70 times the co2 emission. And so the methane emissions we're doing right now this year, has a substantial incremental impact on the climate. And the livestock emissions of methane are one of the largest emissions. And so if we're able to eliminate most of the enteric emissions of ruminant livestock of methane, that would have a very significant impact on a very significant source of greenhouse gases each year. And so we see this as a big opportunity and the fact that seaweed as an organic feed supplement, at a level of 1-10% of the of the feed is able to eliminate most of the entire emissions of ruminant livestock is extremely significant. It moves us towards more organic feed supplements and it also moves us towards a more holistic lifestyle. What I love is how the seaweed is eaten by cows on the beach naturally of their own accord. It's eaten by deer in New Zealand. Hunters have observed deer at night eating seaweed off the beach in New Zealand as an example. And the fact that it's being done naturally by these ruminant livestock to me is very...
Koen van Seijen 34:19
They're self medicating.
Brian von Herzen 34:20
They are, they are, they know just the right amount. We should have seaweed salt licks on pastures around the country, you know, around the world. And you know, we've got a billion cattle on the planet. And you know, whether it's the 30 million cattle in Australia or half a billion cattle in India, you know, there's this huge opportunity to ensure that globally we can get the seaweed to these livestock and enable them to have this more you know, this feed supplement that can be quite healthy for them as well.
Koen van Seijen 34:52
And just to shift gear because I would like to ask a few questions. What if, and I will explain why I'm asking this question, you would wake up tomorrow instead of the magic wand and a vegetarian diet, or let's say the day after tomorrow, and you'll be in charge of a $1 billion investment portfolio. And I'm asking this because I see in the sector, a lot of interest coming to regen ag, a lot of interest coming to regeneration in general, and I think we should start getting used to larger numbers, larger numbers of hectares larger, numbers of square meters, larger number of acres, and thus also larger amounts of investment capital. And I think as a sector we need to get ready to absorb these kind of amounts and not be frightened by it. Because of these phone calls, and these amounts will try to enter the space and then we need to find a way to put them to work to regenerate as much soil and sea as possible. So that's a bit of background. And if you would be in charge the day after tomorrow, where would you start investing, of course, you can also do partly grant, but let's focus on the ones where you would like to have a financial return, what would you be doing?
Brian von Herzen 35:56
Well, I'll just provide some example that's close to home. Today in our development, it's cost... we can develop and build marine permacultures per capital costs and parts that are on the order of $10 per square meter. But we have a roadmap to get us below $1 per square meter in the next few years. And as we bring the cost down of marine permaculture, it becomes less expensive to develop new kelp forests than it is to even buy farmland in Europe or the UK or perhaps even the US.
Koen van Seijen 36:26
So when you say cost, these are the pumps, the equipment, the platform to bring up this nutrient dense, colder water from below.
Brian von Herzen 36:35
Correct and also provide the substrate for the kelp forest and seaweed. And so once this happens that we get below $1 per square meter, then we're looking at less than a million dollars per square kilometer to develop these new permaculture facilities and infrastructure. And not only can that permaculture provide a seaweed bounty, and fish habitat, and ultimately a sustainable yield of fish, but it also cools off the next layer of the ocean. And that's enough to actually reverse coral bleaching. And we're looking at the 1300 kilometers of the Great Barrier Reef and are currently applying for permits to test a small marine permaculture system that would not only grow seaweed, but would also cool off the reef and protect it from coral bleaching. Imagine if we could spend a billion in infrastructure to protect a $57 billion asset and that is the Great Barrier Reef. Imagine if we could do that. That's one of several examples. Imagine if we could go ahead.
Koen van Seijen 37:29
No and I was asking about actually several examples. Let's say you were forced by the trustees of the foundation or the bylaws of the investment fund to diversify. And what would be a few others you've seen around or you see, okay, what other interesting roadmaps to get to those very interesting inflection points, like the one you mentioned, to get to under $1. What others do you see?
Brian von Herzen 37:54
Well, I think there's opportunities in regenerative agriculture where we move from our green revolution, chemical understanding of the soil with NPK fertilizer and pH, to the current generations biological understanding of soil microbial communities. And this is a place where the prebiotic of seaweed - petri dishes are made out of agar, agar is made out of seaweed - the seaweed is an incredible prebiotic for conditioning the soil to actually facilitate the soil microbial communities. And the regeneration of soil microbial communities is key to carbon farming, where we're able to utilize the biodiversity below the soil, as well as the biodiversity above the soil to regenerate carbon fixation into our soils and potentially fix several giga tons of carbon globally per year into the soils. And I think this carbon farming, regenerative agriculture is really key to move towards a deep biological understanding of the soil and how do we plant long roots, and how do we facilitate the regeneration of the microbial communities that are responsible for fixing so much carbon and holding on to that carbon for decades in the soils themselves?
Koen van Seijen 39:07
And my final question, which usually ends up being a few more questions, but what do you believe to be true about regenerative agriculture, or let's say regenerative food systems in general, that others don't believe to be true? And this question is inspired by John Kempf who usually ask it about agriculture in general, but I like to ask it about what do you believe to be true about region ag, and food that others don't believe to be true?
Brian von Herzen 39:29
The permaculture design philosophy of adapting nature I think is really key. And moving from mono specific crops to silvopasture, where we have trees and livestock, or multi layer crops where we actually planted new crops over old crops and we've got winter cover crops. This is absolutely essential because, you know, 365 days a year, we want to have a living plant that is actually feeding the microbes in the soil. And so we have to move on more towards biodiversity. We look at partial harvesting of kelp forests as a key opportunity because the kelp supports dozens of species of epiphytes and even 1000s of species of invertebrates and fish. And it's actually that interspecies interaction that has a profound effect.
Brian von Herzen 40:16
I'm reminded that in Hokkaido, Japan, they were harvesting nearly a million tonnes of herring every year from 1898 and for decades beyond that, until finally in 1953, the herring population collapsed and those herring went extinct. A few decades later, the saccharina kelp forest also collapsed because it turns out the isotopic studies confirmed that the herring were fertilizing the saccharina kelp forest, even at the same time, that the saccharina kelp forest was providing the nursery and the egg laying habitat for the herring. So it's this virtuous cycle of one ecosystem helping the other that we have to regenerate. And it's this understanding of the nutrient value chains and circular value chains in the life cycles of these ecosystems that is essential to our overall understanding. So I think we need to move agriculture more towards multispecies silvopastureing, intensive solar pastoring as described in drawdown, and marine permaculture where we're going: Yes, we we harvest maybe one or two species, but we have so many more species living at the same time. And you know, the predators are really our friends because they're helping to trim the crop. And so ultimately, the permaculture design philosophy is managing the levels of predators and prey to build a multi trophic ecosystem. And this integrated multi trophic aquaculture is just one example. But I think moving towards the permaculture design philosophy is an opportunity in the soils as well as the seas.
Koen van Seijen 41:50
And what do you believe to be true in this sector? Because this is something that at least, not in the broad agriculture sector but at least in a region ag space is getting quite known. The multispecies, and time and place. Is there something that you believe to be true that others don't in the sector?
Brian von Herzen 42:08
Well, in our carbon farming innovators network in the United States, there are probably five measures of soil quality, but they include biodiversity above the ground, as well as biodiversity in the microbes below the ground, and other soil organisms. It includes ensuring well, by increasing this in the soil, we dramatically increase the water retention capacity of the soil. And there are several other measures as well, that effectively enable the, you know, it enables water retention in a way that doesn't exist otherwise. We've seen numerous examples in the US and Australia where a suitable biodynamic approach to rebuilding soil enables those soils to absorb five times as much water as a traditional Green Revolution soil, the compacted soil, and that is a profound effect. I think it's been said that, well it's less about how much water necessarily falls on the soil as to what the soil does with the water. Is it able to absorb the water, and how much? And Allan Savory I think has pioneered this work in Africa, and also in the United States, and he loves to cite to that that when it does rain, we need to be able to absorb that rain and that means effective soil management. So I think that's another key part of this is to really understand that, contrary to traditional wisdom, silvo-pastoring involves rotating livestock across a crop in one or two days, and then giving that green pasture, if you will, 30 days to recover, and then it grows even faster than it did before. This is part of the tenets of silvo-pasturing that move us toward an integrative approach that may include trees and shrubs and some livestock. And I think that achieving that balance at relatively low density is key.
Brian von Herzen 44:01
The other non-traditional wisdom, I think, is that we have an opportunity to do carbon negative dairy and carbon negative livestock. And I think it's one part seaweed and two parts rotational grazing and soil management. And I think within the next three to five years, we can achieve carbon negative dairy. And yes, we should, perhaps have less meat in our diet and maybe manage the amount of dairy. But you know, in 2030, we're still still going to have meat and dairy. And the thing is to bring that industry carbon negative would be transformative to the economics and the sustainability of those industries. And it literally is one part seaweed and two parts rotational soil management that can bring us to carbon negative in many of these critical industries.
Koen van Seijen 44:43
Yeah that would be absolutely huge. I want to thank you so much Brian for your time. I know you're extremely busy. These months you were explaining a bit before the podcast your amount of travel, which is coming up. I will link as much information as possible below and obviously we'll be checking in on the progress of marine permaculture, thank you so much.
Brian von Herzen 45:04
Thank you. It's a pleasure talking with you.
Koen van Seijen 45:07
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