Sea-Green Pastures

R. G. G. Price lives in Sussex and is a regular contributor to PUNCH as well as the ATLANTIC.

Though space gets most of the news coverage, farming the oceans is steadily overhauling it. Getting to Mars may be fun, and highly competitive fun, but it isn’t going to solve any problems. Mars doesn’t sound like the kind of planet where they’ll be growing rice and raising the standard of living in Asia. But not only can the sea be explored; it can be used for producing food. Men going down sub-Atlantic holes in metal spheres may not have quite the feeling of getting away from it all that uplifts the cosmonaut as he goes into orbit, leaving his family well behind. All the same, there is a certain swashbuckling adventurousness about climbing mountains as high as Everest downward, trying your karate on sharks, and searching galleons for treasure horizontally: few burglars can float in through windows, like Peter Pan.

Farming the oceans — a pretty thought, a useful thought, a benevolent thought. Yet, just wait a minute. How closely is it going to follow the pattern of farming on land?

The agricultural population on the Atlantic seabed will be below the weather and below the roughest of seas. They will find it impossible to blame the infinitely varying forces of nature for a bad crop, the man up top in the corn belt has the perfect alibi for empty granaries and bank accounts: it wasn’t my fault, it was all due to too much rain or not enough rain or the sun or the winds or a freak hailstorm. But they simply don’t have those things down there. Just let the seabed operators try to persuade a derisive public that the salinity of the water has changed against him.

I seem to be giving the impression that this damp rural population will actually be growing things on the land beneath the sea. I am not sure that scientific optimism has quite reached that point yet. At the moment, I gather, the idea is to increase the number, succulence, and availability of fish and other marine edibles, though I am pretty sure I have heard of moves to crop seaweed and plankton and make them available to all who crave them. In time, undoubtedly, there will be development in the field of sea-floor cultivation. I predict some pretty grim experiments, first in finding what kinds of weeds grow best in slime, friable rock, and wet lava, and then in campaigning to make the gourmets say their mouths water at the thought of them. However, it is not so much with technology that I am concerned as with attitudes.

Farmers are notoriously conservative. This means that the kinds of fish that get harvested today are going to be the kinds of fish that get harvested in half a century‚ only much more so. I am against this. There are fish abundantly present in the oceans that I never wish to see on a plate again. I should support any program to increase the supply of lobsters and oysters, or better still, develop new breeds that combine all the best eating qualities of existing seafood. I do not want to think of underwater hayseeds who can do nothing better than up the supply of those tasteless, variously pseudonymous fish that make fortunes for the proprietors of the more criminal class of restaurant.

Farmers are superstitious. From my reading of extra-urban fiction‚ I know they are always buying almanacs and dream books. Many a farmer, although pretending to listen to the advice of a college graduate about fertilizers, steals out and sows under the full moon, sometimes digging an idiot grandchild into the furrow to maximize the yield. How are they going to make out when resting on the continental shelf in a bathysphere, faced with a program of increasing the fertility rate of whatever tuna feed on? I reckon they will try to dope the technicians, perhaps by spiking their hypernutrient soup, and steal out to the farm — and then what? Nail a horseshoe on the timbers of a frigate? Any attempt to get up to the more unprintable anthropological frolics in a pressure suit is going to be much too difficult and distracting for them to be able to remember the right spells.

Farmers go in for dark deeds and a good deal of incest. The same difficulty occurs. They are not going to be dressed for incest.

Farmers are always trying to lobby governments. Nothing is more widely believed in agricultural circles than that the man who grows food gets a raw deal from the man who consumes it. Because there are more consumers than producers, in democratic societies the protests are only partially successful. However, lobbying a legislature makes an enjoyable day off from driving a tractor or sitting at a desk. It has some of the excitement of a visit to the market, without the danger that, as in markets, you may have to pay out good money. But down there under the polar ice cap, it is going to take a prolonged vacation to get to any government and lobby it.

Farmers are given to wild jubilation on completing the harvest. Like a team breaking training, they eat and drink and, above all, dance. Few moviegoers have been fortunate enough never to have seen an extended sequence of farmers jumping and stamping and waving their arms in the air, all to the tune of one busy little fiddler, with a good deal of help from the sound track. But what is a harvest celebration going to be like off the Greater Antilles? You just try a square dance in a swimming pool — and how much is the pressure in a swimming pool, and how thick are the passing shoals?

Farmers are often obsessed with the thought that one day geologists will discover rare minerals under their land, or better still, oil. You don’t even need to dig oil; it does all the work itself. Once the bottom of his land becomes more valuable than the top, the farmer can lean back and let his hands become soft and white and break the chain that makes him a prisoner of the soil. It is a pleasant dream, and after all, it has occasionally actually come true. But down among the coral roots of Ceylon, farmers will be expected to farm and leave prospecting for their betters.

If there is oil about, they may well be criticized for letting it flavor the food. Daydreaming will be discouraged, not least by the silent presence of predators so strange to look at, so toxic, so much more at home than the dreamer.

Assuming that one method of tackling world food problems will be to improve the quality and quantity of fish, you are going to have the problem of rustling of breeding stock. This in turn will lead to private vengeance, lynch law, and all the rest of it. Bad men will quarrel with other bad men. Around the corners of limpet-encrusted rocks will come harpoon-toting gunmen, in slow motion, the quicker on the draw drilling his opponent’s oxygen cylinder. Just think, to take one small detail, of the work involved in changing the brands on a shoal of high-protein cod.

I can’t help feeling sometimes that the science prophets haven’t thought the project through.