the problem is......well, shrivelled imagination. Learn.
July 6, 2003 12:07 AM   Subscribe

Out of the desert, out of Africa: In war-torn Eritrea, former atomic physicist demonstrates radical new vision of Free-Market environmentalism. "...Imagine a farm where water is never in short supply and each crop leaves the soil more fertile. Now imagine that farm offering a solution warming, declining water tables, loss of arable land, collapsing fisheries, and shrinking biodiversity. Finally, imagine that farm making money....Carl Hodges, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Arizona, no longer imagines such a farm. He's built one....Seawater Farms, a joint venture with the government of Eritrea on the Red Sea, is the first commercial-sized saltwater farm in the world....."
posted by troutfishing (18 comments total)
"Only when the night is darkest do we see the dawn"

thanks for the links - trout
posted by specialk420 at 12:39 AM on July 6, 2003

Malthus was right.
posted by jonson at 12:40 AM on July 6, 2003

jonson - elaborate?
posted by troutfishing at 1:04 AM on July 6, 2003

Great FPP. Of course Malthus was right, and so was Nitzche, but trying to save humanity is fun.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 1:09 AM on July 6, 2003

Great post, tilapiafarming troutfishing.

I hope this venture proves successful (and that they don't have to resort to antibiotics or end up with parasites, like most salmon farms here in British Columbia). It would be nice to see that economic success doesn't always have to come at the expense of the environment.

posted by filmgoerjuan at 1:58 AM on July 6, 2003

This is great news, so I don't want to come across as a grumpy bastard, but... isn't this a little old? The page is from December 25, 2000. On, the home page of the project, it says that "as of Fall of 2001, we have planted over 300,000 mangrove trees". Their list of articles about them in the press stops in April 2001.
What has happened since then? A quick Google search for pages about this project updated this year found nothing.
posted by Termite at 2:56 AM on July 6, 2003

Malthus was right.

We have too many poor people because God created the world in such a way that humans are forced to produce more offspring than can be supported?
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:26 AM on July 6, 2003

Found this quote from an April Atlantic Monthly piece by Robert. D. Kaplan:

"An immense fish farm near the port of Massawa testifies to Eritrea's ability to utilize foreign aid and know-how. The 1,500-acre complex channels salt water from the Red Sea, purifies it, and then uses it to raise shrimp in scores of circular cement tanks. The nutrient-rich excess of that process is used for breeding tilapia, a freshwater fish. The remaining waste water is pumped into asparagus and mangrove fields and artificially created wetlands. Though the operation was initially overseen by a firm from Phoenix, Arizona, and for a time employed an Israeli consultant, the consultant is now only rarely used. The Eritreans themselves run the operation in every respect."

Lots more about Eritrtea there, too.
posted by Jos Bleau at 8:28 AM on July 6, 2003

What has happened since then?

It seems to me that it was a flood of articles in 2000 and in 2001, then everything stopped. Here is what I have found:

The Boston Globe - August 29, 2002 (from Lexis-Nexis)

JOHANNESBURG - Carl Hodges believes so passionately in saving the planet that he has flown in a mangrove tree from Eritrea, via Germany, so that people attending this week's World Summit on Sustainable Development can have a close look at its tendrilly undercarriage.

Hodges's "root room," one of hundreds of exhibits in a cavernous hall devoted to water issues, offers one simple solution to a complex environmental problem: Greening desert coastlines with mangroves or other saltwater plants that would create jobs, produce building materials, and pull temperature-raising carbons out of the atmosphere through the plants' prolific base.


Now the interesting part:
Seawater Farms is (was) 50% owned by Seaphire International, as stated in the CNN article. Seaphire was created by billionaire John Sperling (Fortune article 1, 2, 3). His interests include: education (University of Phoenix), anti-aging, drug law reform (you will love this), pet cloning, and saltwater agriculture.

Since Dec. 2001 (no more news since then - buyout PR?) Seaphire is owned by Exeter Life Sciences (investment fund). In 2002 it acquired several food tech. licenses, #1 and #3 on their home page.

Seaphire ... announced the acquisition of an exclusive worldwide license to technology that has successfully created salt tolerant plants.
It seems to me they are very interested in the profit part of the pyramid.
posted by MzB at 6:42 PM on July 6, 2003

troutfishing - I just meant that mankind has had to come up with progressively more innovative mechanisms to generate food & sustain life, in order to avoid the malthusian catastrophe.
posted by jonson at 7:33 PM on July 6, 2003

Well, it's certainly the most nickname appropriate post I've seen. ;)
posted by y2karl at 8:46 PM on July 6, 2003

It's up there with the katemonkey post about escaped monkeys...
posted by jonson at 9:15 PM on July 6, 2003

MzB - You hit the nail on the head. I was on that research trail this morning, but then Metafilter clogged up and I couldn't post my findings: much the same as yours, but even more dubious for the greater detail. "Seawater Farms" lost some of it's eco-friendly gloss (for me, at least), and I started wondering if I was looking at a power play (through Exeter Life Sciences) to build a GMO/Transgenic giant to rival or even surpass Monsanto, in it's rush to develop proprietary transgenic/gene mod organisms to "help" humanity (and turn a vast profit in the process, of course).

Here's what I dug up this morning, finally (just back from seeing Cirque Du Soleil, and the Net (or Mefi) has come unclogged):

Termite, Jos Bleau - I did a little more digging, and the "Seawater Farms": story acquired a radically different aspect. I still think the Eritrea project is deeply inspiring, but.... (read on, read on....)

Initially, I searched for "Seawater Farms" on Google (11,500 hits, but...) and pulled up bits such as (from the US Commercial Service): "...A consortium of investors from the U.S. and elsewhere and the Ministry of Fisheries have invested in an ambitious shrimp, tilapia, and salicornia farmcum ecotourism project, which began exporting shrimp to Europe and the Middle East in June 2001. The investors expect exports to total $3-4 million in 2001, $10 million in 2002, and $40-50 million in 2003." Apparently, as of 2001, ".....The project has also produced significant revenue. Seawater Farms generated $10 million worth of shrimp, fish, and salicornia in 2001. When the farm is fully operational by 2005, it could generate 10 times that amount." reports PERC (see my "Free Market" link).

The Google trail on "Seawater Farms" was, in fact, a little thin. There was a reason for that (read on).

Substituting "financial" for the word "profit" pulled up much more material and led me to the parent company behind "Seawater Farms" - Seaphire International. Roy Hodges (who I guess to be Carl Hodges' son) is Seaphire's CEO. This trail then led in a mostly unexpected, and somewhat unpleasant direction.

Initially, I was going to reply to Termite's criticism ("old news") with the following fusillade of sarcasm: "The story is indeed "old", sort of like the Manhatten Project was in 1944, but you hadn't heard of it now, had you? I'd say it fits the "best of the web" bill - a Free Market environmentally beneficial pilot product which could ennable much of the world's desert coastline to support mangrove shrimp/tilipia farms which could feed much of the world's poor. But, as I researched the story further, "Seawater Farms" morphed into "Seaphire International" which then was revealed to be owned by "Exeter Life Sciences, Inc.", a shadowy $5.6 billion holding company for companies specializing in transgenic and GMO technologies (Google search on "Exeter Life Sciences, Inc."), Exeter's stable of companies include ones such as "ViaGen", which was recently written up with this ominous headline;

"...ViaGen Acquires Livestock Pioneer ProLinia; Deal Gives Genetics Company Patent Rights, Contract with World`s Largest Hog Producer and New Scientific Talent"

Oh boy - transgenic hogs that breed like rabbits, produce their own antibiotics, can be fed on random trash and industrial waste and rubble, and grow to the size of Hippos. (or whatever they are genetically modified to do)

Bacon, anyone? Hots dogs? Pork Chops? Yum.

Seaphire International was looking less and less benign all the time.

Was it the developing world's savour or a malevolent use of GMO technology? [ argues this extremely informative and well linked post ]

In it's own words, "Seaphire is a market-driven company focused on creating and commercializing economically and environmentally sustainable products for agriculture and aquaculture. Our products are based on both transgenic and non-transgenic technologies, and create value for farmers and consumers.....Seaphire is a wholly owned subsidiary of Exeter Life Sciences, Inc., a multidisciplinary company with operating units addressing market opportunities in human, animal, and plant health. "

So the my story now changes, and quite substantially, Seaphire International is not completely benign - It is, in fact, based on transgenic technologies. I suspect that Hodges would justify this on the basis that the looming problems of inadequate world food production and declining freshwater reserves demand a rapid, pragmatic approach to developing solutions. In this case, I tend to agree - at least in the case of the Eritrea porject - but as I researched the Seaphire/GMO technology nexus, Seaphire began to look more and more like an emerging rival to Dow and Monsanto, in it's highly agressive purchase and development of GMO technology. Seaphire's business model, in fact, is almost completely reliant on transgenic technologies.

And Exeter Life Sciences, Inc., a huge, shadowy holding company with no website and an extremely low web profile (a Google search on the name nets 15 hits), has quite a stable of GMO-based companies, such as "Arcadia Life Science" (closely related to Seaphire actually) which claims to:

"develop and commercialize biotechnologies that make agriculture more economically and environmentally sustainable.....The focus of our business is the advancement of biotechnologies from concept to commercial solution - developing agricultural products that offer higher profitability and lower production costs compared to traditional production methods.....Using transgenic and non-transgenic technologies, we create value for farmers, consumers, and investors, using a business model based on sustainable agriculture, a cleaner environment, and high profit potential.

About the forementioned "Viagen Technologies": in it's own words, "ViaGen provides state-of-the-art advanced breeding services powered by genomics to all sectors of the $240 billion livestock, aquaculture and companion animal industry. Unmatched genomic capabilities allow ViaGen to identify economically important genetic traits in virtually any animal species, information that is paired with ViaGen’s expertise in advanced reproductive technologies to obtain revenue enhancing improvements in quality, yield, safety and brand integrity. ViaGen is an Exeter Life Sciences company located in Austin, Texas. Exeter Life Sciences is a world leader in innovative health and life-sciences products and services that improve the lives of people, animals and the environment" Viagen, Inc. is the parent company of Prolinia, which develops "superhog" technology for companies such as the massive Smithfield Foods, Inc., the world's largest hog producer.

In Viagen's own words, "breeders use genomic data generated by ViaGen to improve quality, yield, uniformity, predictability, health, food safety, care and brand integrity.

Exeter Life Sciences' market fund, the Exeter Life Sciences Fund " a concentrated portfolio, with 57% of net assets in the fund's top 10 holdings (31 total holdings), per Morningstar's report. Morningstar's style analysis puts it in the mid-cap growth style box though that reflects the fund's average market capitalization of $5.6 billion." reports

Meanwhile, back to Seaphire/Seawater Farms.....

In the case of the Eritrea project, the GMO's in question are specialized strains of plants which can grow in high salinity environments. Seaphire has an exclusive license on it's GMO plant technology which was "....licensed from the University of Toronto Innovations Foundation and was invented by a team at the University of Toronto under the leadership of Professor Eduardo Blumwald, PhD.....[because] Salinity is one of the most significant problems facing world agriculture.....Dr. Blumwald's research team has developed tomato and canola plants that grow and produce normal fruit and seed yields when irrigated with water that is 33% the salinity level of seawater. Most agricultural crops fail to achieve economic yields when salinity exceeds about 8% of seawater. The research has been described in several scientific publications, including Science, Nature Biotechnology, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA."

The curious "Seawater Farms"/"Seaphire International" split personality of the operation is quite confusing and, I suspect, intentional. "Seawater Farms" seems to be the nomenclature under which the venture is marketed - publicized, that is - to an environmental community which might object to - and even be horrified by - Seaphire's use of GMO's. If Seaphires' association - through it's ultimate parent company Exeter Life Sciences, Inc. - to companies leading the transgenic/GMO charge ( creating superhogs for Smithfield Foods, and so on ) were more widely known, this would certainly muddy that Eco-friendly gloss which shines so brightly from the "Seawater Farms" website.

Seaphire International is in it's third year now and seems to be quite well capitalized - it is agressively purchasing parallel GMO technologies so it can corner the market in it's special niche. As a privately held company, it does not disclose it's finances (currently, anyway) so the 2002 and 2003 figures for the Eritrea/Seawater farm sales are probably have not yet been released. Seaphire also has experimental operations in Mexico and Arizona

For some reason, after discovering Seaphire's parentage, the above mention of "experiments" in Arizona and Mexico, brings "X-Files - the Movie" to mind (to my mind anyway).

Furthermore, Seaphire has acquired the GMO technology of plants modified to grow with less nitrogen: "Seaphire, a privately held agricultural biotechnology company says the opportunity from this acquisition is immense, as farmers worldwide spend more than $30 billion annually on nitrogen fertilizer.....Seaphire licensed the technology from AgriGenomics, Inc., a technology spin-off of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada." (august 13, 2002)

Perhaps the world needs these technologies? I'm a bit dubious now. Seaphire's parent company is anything but transparent, and so I'm inclined to doubt that such transgenic tinkering will be put to altruistic, benevolent uses. I could be persuaded, but....

Meanwhile.......there is an upside to all this:

The mangroves have proven a boon to wildlife diversity, especially to birds: "This was third year of our celebration of the World Wetlands Day at the Seawater Farms Eritrea. Our created Seawater Farms Wetlands (area 120 hectares) and the Mangrove forest area 50 hectares, Salicornia bigelovii a Seawater irrigated crop (area 100 hectares) were covered for the total bird count . We Saw 125 species of birds including the land birds, resident and migratory water birds. Our checklist for the SFE is 230 species. The Country's total checklist is 586 species of birds.

During our bird count the highlight was a huge concentration of a roost of the Wagtails (yellow and African Pied Wagtails numbering over 20, 000) . This huge population of Wagtails is using the trees in our created wetlands as night roost and the Salicornia fields and Mangrove areas as day foraging ground. .....The other highlights were the Endemic White-eyed Gulls (55) and the Lesser Flamingo 125, the Pink-backed Pelicans 120 , the pelicans are resident at the SFE wetlands. Two pairs of Ospreys were seen at the Farm. "

posted by troutfishing at 9:44 PM on July 6, 2003

jonson - yup. I agree, unless of course we are at the "Wiley-E Coyote runs of cliff, realizes he's standing on (big thud, puff of dust.)" stage.
posted by troutfishing at 9:48 PM on July 6, 2003

Personally, I bet we'll hit the Swiftian "modest proposal" stage before we actually hit the Coyote stage. After all, as the gap between haves & have nots increases around the world, as the bulk of South American rainforest gets clear cut to make grazing land for our burgers, can rounding up and eating the less fortunate be that far off?
posted by jonson at 10:24 PM on July 6, 2003

believes so passionately in saving the planet that he has flown in a mangrove tree from Eritrea to Germany

Mangroves can be used for flight? Either passionate belief is more powerful than I thought here, or the author of that article needs to lay off the pixie dust.
posted by namespan at 10:37 PM on July 6, 2003

Great work, Trout! This material would make an excellent magazine article.
Though I must add that what you've found doesn't completely disqualify the Eritrean saltwater farm for me. It still sounds like a good idea. It is, I hope, just the beginning of a new way of ecological thinking. The idea I read about elsewhere, of "solving" the problem with greenhouse gases by pumping them down into porous rocks sounds, on comparison, outdated. It's a product of the same kind of thinking that produced the problem.
And maybe I should have expressed myself better: I didn't mean to criticize you for posting old news, I just wondered if this project was still alive.
posted by Termite at 9:01 PM on July 7, 2003

Some additonal material related to this post came in: here it is (a very funny anecdote): "Dear Sir, I enjoyed your post at about the boons of a company like Seaphire using the environment for financial gain as well as the secret (or not so secret) pitfalls of such an endeavor. (GMOs, profit clouding the minds of investors, long term environmental (and economic) viability sacrificed for short term economic growth, etc) I am new to Metafilter. Before it I had to come up with interesting news clips the hard way, digging for them through so much fetid waste that is the internet. Ironically, natural fetid waste eventually turns into useful fertilizer, but internet waste? destined eternally to be waste. Sadly however, when I wanted to add a post to the thread about Seaphire, and this farm in Eritrea, I couldn't , because new members were blocked, for the time being. Could you add a very brief post for me, its actually something that ties in relatively well? (I suppose it had better!) I chose you because you had the most informative post, and seemed like someone who actually might know something about the question I'm about to ask: Around two years ago, when i was engaging in one of my habitual information-gathering sorties at the local Barnes and Nobles (I'm too poor to BUY magazines, so i go to barnes and Nobles two hours a week and Read (and take notes if necessary) I justify this act buy purchasing a cup of their overpriced coffee as a admission fee! ;))

I noticed an article in some journal - mens journal, outside? - that mentioned a man in Florida or California - maybe mexico (i guess I'm a little vague here!, sorry) that built an island out of trash. Actually it was more of an atoll, i think, a floating island, but it was made out of sealed milk cartons and other debris that would float. He then planted mangrove trees on this, and lived on it, as it was the size of a small cabin cruiser. As the trees grew - and they grew well - he added on with more floating stuff and trees. The trees branches eventually attraacted birds, the roots, fish. More organic debris became enlodged in the roots and this debris allowed different drift fruits as well as cultivated plants to grow. This island became such an attraction that the local resort owners conspired to kick him off the dock where he was moored. I don't know what happened from there. That's what I want to know. I seem to recall the end of the article mentioning the man saying he was sailing for more welcoming ports (literally) and the island being vaguely self sustaining - the organisms created their own ecosystem, although the man had to feed himself. I've combed the internet as much as I can, but have lost the trail.

That's why I'd like to ask this, as it sort of fits in - using nature to both help economically (in one case, financially, in another, shelter) and to clean up and protect (both projects ended up being a wildlife haven). If you could post this question to the thread I would REALLY REAlly appreciate it! Thank you so much for any cooperation, "

I wrote this reply, also, to Termite (who emailed me about the post) - "I agree with you on Seawater Farms, that it's parentage (or ultimate ownership) doesn't negate it's example. I still think that it's inspiring. If you like this sort of thing, try doing a Google search on Dr. John Todd, and also on "New Alchemy". Dr. Todd has pioneered ( or "bioneered" ) methods as inspiring as Seawater Farms without the use of GMO technology. He founded the New Alchemy Institute (now legendary in some circles) and, more recently, Ocean Arks International . If you can get his book "Ocean Arks, Bioshelters, City farming", it's well worth a read. Also, you might like the writings of the biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris - (she has a free online book -, and also the writings of Dr. William Calvin ( he also has one or two free online books, such as "The River that runs Uphill" )

I'm not even completely opposed to all GMO technology. Humans have been doing it - through more basic methods - for thousands of years. I think I draw the line firmly at transgenic GMO technology though. It has been shown that individual genes can - and do - jump across species lines in nature, but I don't think the 'rules' for this are at all well understood. And this sort of 'jumping' happens primarily at the level of bacteria. ( see the writings of the prominent biologist Lynn Margulis ) I don't think there's much trans species genetic promiscuity at the more complex level of plants and animals. So the project of cutting and pasting genetic material - 'antifreeze' genes from arctic fish into tomatoes, for example - seems rather risky to me, because there is so much we don't understand about genetics and because the ability to "tinker" with such systems does not equate with comprehension of their subtleties. Believe me - I'm a habitual tinkerer. I can fix many technological systems which I actually know very little about. But I don't confuse that knack with actual knowledge, and I try to be aware of what is at stake, of potential hazards. I think the potential hazards of transgenic tinkering at quite great. So I've postponed, indefinitely, my idea of crossing my dog with a broccoli plant. "
posted by troutfishing at 7:24 AM on July 10, 2003

« Older Don't be silly. It's just a flesh wound.   |   Sky for sale Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments