A few miles inland from the Sea of Cortez, amid cracked earth and sun-bleached cactus, neat rows of emerald plants are sprouting from the desert floor.
The crop is salicornia. It is nourished by seawater. And if you believe the American who is farming it, it has the potential to feed the world, fuel our vehicles and slow global warming.
He is Carl Hodges, a Tucson-based atmospheric physicist who has spent most of his 71 years figuring out how humans can feed themselves in places where good soil and fresh water are in short supply.
The founding director of the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Lab, his work has attracted an eclectic band of admirers: heads of state, corporate chieftains and such Hollywood stars as Martin Sheen and the late Marlon Brando.
Hodges’ knack for making things grow in odd environments has been on display at the Land Pavilion in the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World and the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona. In the Mexican state of Sonora, he’s thinking much bigger.
The Earth’s ice sheets are melting fast. Scientists predict that rising seas could swallow some low-lying areas, displacing millions of people.
Hodges sees opportunity. Why not divert the flow inland to create wealth and jobs instead of catastrophe? He wants to channel the ocean into man-made “rivers” to nourish commercial aquaculture operations, mangrove forests and crops. This greening of desert coastlines, he said, could add millions of acres of farmland and sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in global warming. “The only way we can stop [sea-level rise] is if people believe we can,” he said.
Experts including Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, say seawater agriculture could prove to be an important weapon in the fight against climate change.
Hodges built such a farm in Africa, but political upheaval shut much of it down in 2003. That’s why he’s determined to construct a showcase project in North America. All he needs now is $35 million.
That’s where salicornia comes in. The succulent thrives in hellish heat and pitiful soil on little more than a regular dousing of ocean water.
Hodges, who now heads the nonprofit Seawater Foundation, plugged salicornia for years as the plant to help end world hunger. Do-gooders applauded. The private sector yawned.
Then oil prices exploded and people started paying attention. That’s because salicornia also can be converted into biofuel. NASA has estimated that halophytes planted over an area the size of the Sahara Desert could supply more than 90% of the world’s energy needs.
NASA is interested in testing fuel from Hodges’ halophyte. So are cement makers and other heavy industries. Retired executives from some major corporations are so encouraged by the potential that they are helping Global Seawater raise capital and focus on generating returns for investors.
Fernando Canales Clariond, former Mexican secretary of the economy and member of one of the nation’s most powerful industrial families, recently joined the board. “The world doesn’t move because of idealism,” he said. “It moves because of economic incentives.”
Fellow board member Anthony Simon, former president of marketing for Unilever Bestfoods, put it more bluntly. “Carl is a wonderful scientist,” he said of Hodges. But he “is a lousy businessman.”
Hodges has sold assets and maxed out credit cards over the years to keep his seawater dreams afloat. His’ talk of stopping sea-level rise and reinventing agriculture is so audacious that some of his own backers have cautioned him to tone it down.
But longtime friend Sheen said Hodges isn’t likely to. He said, “Carl is on a mission to save the world.”