Agrisea – Rice farming goes offshore

Agrisea uses a gene-editing technique (CRISPR) to amplify the salt-tolerant genes already found in rice to grow the grain on floating sea farms. This rice requires no soil, fertilizers, nor freshwater. The Canadian start-up aims to launch small pilot farms in January 2022 and full-scale production later in the year. Agrisea believes their gene-edited, ocean-grown rice could help combat hunger and alleviate numerous environmental problems.

Challenge: Producing more food without the need for more agricultural land

In the context of environmental and health crises, as the world’s population continues to grow, so does food insecurity. Our present cultivation systems cannot keep up the pace.

There is heightened pressure to produce more food without expanding agricultural acreage. By encroaching on vulnerable, untouched lands, yield-decreasing pathogens infest new areas whose crops are not prepared for such pathogens. We then use fertilizers to boost productivity, but plants absorb them inefficiently, leading to environmental hazards such as the nitrification of soil and freshwater. Moving some food production offshore could alleviate “exhausted” agricultural lands.

The world’s current agricultural practices are also vulnerable to the ever-growing soil salinization, increased droughts, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and higher temperatures jeopardizing yield. Finding innovative ways to grow foods, especially staple foods, becomes imperative to combat food insecurity.

Rice is a major staple food everywhere on the planet. In the 2020/2021 crop year, the global population consumed over 500 million tons of rice. Nearly half of us eat it daily. Yet, it’s among the most resource-intensive staple grains. On average, it takes 1,432 liters of water to produce one kilo of the ubiquitous carbohydrate. Finding less thirsty ways to grow rice would help the food system reduce its contribution to the growing water scarcity.

Agrisea's freshwater prototype
Freshwater prototype - Agrisea

Initiative: Agrisea takes rice farming offshore

Freshwater Mesh Test

“By taking rice farming to the ocean, Agrisea increases the grains agricultural production area.”


Plant geneticist Luke Young and biologist Rory Hornby founded Agrisea to create a sustainable farming system that uses seawater to grow crops.

The start-up has developed a gene-editing technique that enables crops such as rice to thrive in marine waters and other saline environments. By taking rice farming to the ocean, Agrisea increases the grain’s agricultural production area.

Their engineered rice will grow on floating ocean farms. These offshore floating paddies mitigate wave motion and comprise a strong mesh that provides a “ground” for plant roots to bind to in lieu of soil. The roots are positioned to absorb the necessary nutrients directly from the surrounding saltwater, including excess nitrogen from agricultural fertilizer run-off. Contrary to rice production on land, this nutrient-recycling method substantially curtails methane that toxic algal blooms caused by excess nutrients would otherwise emit. It also contributes to preventing eutrophication and associated dead zones in coastal environments.

“They could even help alleviate some consequences of natural disasters as the crops could be planted directly into salty soil in tsunami- or hurricane-stricken regions.”


Another innovative aspect of Agrisea’s technology is the use of bacteria that colonize the roots, giving plants necessary micronutrients while profiting from components such as carbohydrates provided by the plant. The colonization provides the plants with their own defense mechanism against potential pests too. This symbiotic relation between roots and bacteria also allows the farm to be self-sustaining and avoid external fertilizers, detrimental to the seawater ecosystem. The bacteria only survive in the plant’s roots.

Moreover, Agrisea’s ocean farms are resilient to environmental disasters, as they can be moved in case of extreme weather events, providing reliable harvests year-round. They could even help alleviate some consequences of natural disasters as the crops could be planted directly into salty soil in tsunami- or hurricane-stricken regions. This is critical when considering the effects of climate change.

Key facts

  • Finalist: Agrisea
  • Type of organization: Private Company
  • Year of establishment: 2019
  • Headquarters: Ontario, Canada
  • Founders: Luke Young and Rory Hornby
  • Number of staff: 4
  • The big idea: Growing rice in oceans to combat hunger while saving land and freshwater resources
  • Goal: Expanding its salt-tolerant crop portfolio to include grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables

Nobel Prize awarded genetic scissors (CRISPR)

Agrisea uses a gene-editing technique that amplifies – rather than replaces – genes found in rice and other crops, avoiding gene transfer between species or excessive alteration of the genetic material. It’s about boosting existing salt tolerance, not creating new genetically modified plant varieties.

“The piece of DNA ‘switches on’ eight different genes that are normally only active in plants that are naturally tolerant to saline water.”


The method first isolates stem cells from rice; then uses the Nobel Prize-awarded “CRISPR gene scissors” technology to insert that particular piece of DNA in various parts of the plant’s genome. This piece “switches on” eight different genes that are normally only active in plants that are naturally tolerant to saline water. In the next step, Agrisea used the new stem cells to grow plants that produce seeds equipped with the freshly edited gene.

The competitive edge of salt-tolerant rice

Agrisea’s technology is at the frontier of science and technology. Terrestrial crops have never been grown in this way, and large-scale floating “islands” of this nature are entirely novel. Similar to hydroponics, the crops can thrive on excess nutrients present in coastal waters. Agrisea’s founders expect their marine-based rice to have greater yields than their standard counterparts.

Salt tolerant rice

Scaling up and expanding to more crops

Applying CRISPR provides the safest and most precise way of interfering with a plant genome. Since the technology can target several positions simultaneously, generating such plants require very little labor. The technology’s simple design and application make it valuable for nearly any laboratory around the globe.

Agrisea can create small plots, placed along the canals of coastal towns, and vast tracts – hundreds of hectares in size – that supply whole cities. The company is currently developing multiple salt-tolerant rice varieties to suit climates ranging from North America to Europe to Southern Africa to Southeast Asia.

The start-up is launching several small pilot farms in Singapore in January 2022 and the Bahamas by the end of the year and planning to begin full-scale production in 2022. Beyond this, Agrisea aims to expand its salt-tolerant crop portfolio to include corn, wheat, barley, soybean, mung bean, spinach, berries, and more.


Potential shortcomings

The primary concern is how fungal, viral and other diseases might be handled. As the islands would produce the same crop over several production cycles, the risk of infection and infestation increases with each cycle.

As gene-editing, as its name suggests, relies on endogenous genes, Agrisea will first need to find salt tolerance in other crop species or interfere differently to expand its concept to more grains and legumes. Another limitation in targeted gene modification is the generation of the individual plants. While rice is relatively easy to transform from tissue culture, other plants are not.

What would Agrisea do with the Prize sum?

If Agrisea wins the Food Planet Prize, they would invest in current and future projects, including the integration of their salt-tolerant crops with the cultivation of submerged fish, mussels, or other types of seafood.

Moreover, the founders would create a lab to support their Bahamian pilot project. They would also use their existing partnerships in Singapore to bring new technologies to the next step: including a floating solar farm, as well as drone planting and drone monitoring of crops.

Other possible allocations include laying the groundwork for ocean farm operations in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, Namibia, and Madagascar. They also aim to order an external audit to evaluate their carbon capture accreditation and perform an impact assessment on their farm operations.

Lastly, part of the sum would go towards special projects such as a second-generation plant design with increased nutrients (antioxidants and vitamins) and increased yield (photosynthesis optimization).

Read more on Agrisea

Nominate yourself or someone else, it takes three minutes and could change the world!