Growing rice in the ocean sounds a little whacky, but ocean agriculture is an emerging form of food production that could have some real potential. Less than 1% of fresh water is available for human use, and 70% of that is used for agriculture worldwide. Increased demand for food and exploding population levels are pushing innovators to explore areas where agriculture has never gone before. One crop taking to the sea is rice. A company started by two 24-year-old scientists wants to produce salt-tolerant rice and floating ocean farms by 2021, with small pilot farms by the end of 2020.
With 7.7 billion people currently living on the planet, and an expected 2 billion more joining the ranks by 2050, having enough food available is important, and some companies are finding solutions to environmental problems, such as sea level rise, through scientific innovation. Traditional agriculture requires many inputs; fertilizer, specific chemicals, manual labor and water. Most of the water used in agriculture is for irrigation, and some crops require more water to grow than others. Rice is one of the most water-intensive crops, and also one of the most widely consumed worldwide.
Grown in over 100 countries, rice makes quite an impact for such a humble little grain. Over 700 million tons is produced each year, with more than 90% of that production in Asia alone. 3.5 billion people rely on rice every day, and with such an enormous impact, people have long been interested in manipulating rice genes to achieve certain goals.
Manipulating the rice genome is not entirely new. The Golden Rice Project emerged in 1999 to address the rampant vitamin A deficiency, and resulting blindness in many countries where rice is a staple food. Other research into increasing photosynthetic efficiency, drought resistance, and methane reduction of rice is in the works as well, and all requires genetic modification.
The creators of Golden Rice found a way to make rice produce beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A. They inserted two genes from corn and a bacterium found in soil, into the rice genome. The process of inserting genes not naturally found in an organism is called genetic modification, and is quite controversial. Opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food has halted progress on a project that the founders believe could save billions of people who eat rice every day. GMO use is a divisive topic, and many scientists and companies are choosing to stay away from them to avoid public disdain and regulatory challenges.
Agrisea is taking a different approach to food science. They want to grow rice in the ocean by using gene-editing, which would amplify the expression of genes already found in rice that control salt-tolerance. Salt-tolerant rice could be grown in salty ocean water without the use of soil, fertilizer or fresh water. Rather than inserting genes from other species, they have identified the genes that control for salt expulsion, cellular insulation and DNA protection, and are enhancing the expression of those genes. “Together these genes act in a network, just like they do in nature,” Luke Young, CEO and co-founder of Agrisea said. “We just encourage them along the pathways that nature has formed in plants that can thrive in a salty environment.” The co-founders explained that they could use repeated selective breeding in rice to get the same result, but gene-editing just speeds up the process.
The first step in the process was to create a portfolio of salt-resistant crops that will eventually grow in floating ocean farms around the world. Agrisea is already in talks with major rice-producing and consuming countries; Nigeria, China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, as well as New Zealand, the USA, Japan and Chile, to establish these floating ocean farms.
While the company plans to have their first small pilot farms in the water by the end of this year, they expect to have multiple larger pilot farms in the ocean by the end of 2021. In addition to the farms providing food in rice-producing countries, they hope to use the farms for bioremediation in the USA and New Zealand to combat dead zones and algal blooms caused by fertilizer run-off. The farms would act as ocean filters, soaking up and breaking down excess nutrients that travel from agricultural fields into waterways. The crops could also be planted directly into salty soil. In places like Japan, where tsunamis have flooded coastal soil, this advantage could reduce the need for costly and laborious transport of non-salty soil from other areas.
Agrisea received initial funding from science accelerator IndieBio. They are now continuing with additional start-up lab space through Velocity accelerator out of Ontario. By raising $1 million, they hope to hire additional plant scientists and expand their salt-tolerant crop portfolio to include corn, wheat, barley, soybean, mung bean, spinach and more.
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