White gold. That’s what some call one of the most-eaten seafoods because it's so lucrative. A.k.a. shrimp, the new gold rush has reached landlocked desert farms in Arizona.

“What heat-stroked dummkopf came up with that insane notion?” I find myself exclaiming at the thought of all that water. “Haven’t they heard the word drought? Or sustainability?”

Well, actually, it’s not quite as certifiable as it sounds.

The farmers at Wood’s Brothers – one of four shrimp farms in Arizona – pump water from deep underground. It’s a little too salty to use as potable water because it is a vestige of a sea that covered the region eons ago. The water flows into shrimp ponds enclosed in greenhouses to reduce evaporation. And the part that really makes it work: the waste water irrigates crops which would need water anyway – the precious molecules simply do double duty, once for shrimp to swim and poop in, and the other to water and fertilize plants.

They claim their shrimp are “the world’s best-tasting shrimp.” Their crustaceans don’t eat a jot of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or a whole bunch of other junk that almost all aquacultured shrimp eat in order to stay healthy and grow quickly.

I can’t corroborate the gourmet taste as I have not tried them, but I do find the notion of organic shrimp rather inviting since the FDA discovered illegal antibiotics had contaminated imports from China. 90% of all US shrimp is imported, with just over 10% coming from China, which is all farmed.

China isn’t the only culprit. In 2001, Thailand shipped shrimp to Sweden that were tainted with illegal antibiotics in their flesh. An article in the New York Times today reports over $20 billion-worth of food imports were halted by the FDA in 2006 alone for everything from salmonella to plain old "filth". On the list is candy, shrimp, spices, crackers, noodles. The list goes on. But lets stick to shrimp before we get too overwhelmed by the dubious nature of our food supply.

As far as seafood goes, these little decapods have one of the lowest mercury levels, making them recommended-eating for pregnant women and kids. They’re told to stay away from many fish for fear of heavy metal poisoning.

Unfortunately, aside form being (usually) safe to eat, they generally devastate the regions where they’re prevalent. The environmental devastation shrimp farms cause is bad, really bad. I won’t cover the depressing list here as many others have written about it. Suffice it to say that the problems are primarily involved in whacking down mangrove forests to make way for the ponds, and churning out millions of gallons of effluent that not only spread disease and pollution into the sea, but also neighboring shrimp farms.

There is no silver bullet that will suddenly make shrimp farming completely environmentally friendly. However, there are a number of groups who are certainly trying to make it so. Researchers at the University of Arizona and Texas A&M have worked long and hard on the system that the afore-mentioned Woods Brothers Shrimp Farm uses.

Closed loop farms cut down water usage and effluent discharge by cleaning the water so it is used over and over again in an almost continuous cycle. The system is expensive to install, so don’t expect it to sprout up all over the developing world where most of the damage is done.

A concept quite likely to catch on in developing countries is in operation on a small scale on the coast of the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. Here, seawater flows in from the Sea of Cortez into shrimp ponds. When the water exits it is now laden with feces and debris and floods across fields of crops that grow on saltwater. They grow lush from the nutrients in the water, turning the nearly barren coastal desert emerald green. The crop cleans the water somewhat, which then flows through mangroves that are planted like a plantation to be used for lumber and animal feed (goats, sheep and camels love the leaves). The water filters through the ground and eventually makes its way back to sea, totally clean.

The University of Arizona initiated the idea a couple of decades ago. The Arizona-based Seawater Foundation is now commercializing it. They say that concerns about flooding the desert with seawater are unfounded. Many coastal deserts are already too salty for freshwater farming. Also, there’s underground seawater in these areas, which freshwater floats on. Thus, adding seawater won’t contaminate freshwater reserves. Camels proved the point when the group tried a project along the Red Sea coast in Africa a few years ago. Soon after seawater flood irrigated fields, the animals came in droves to drink from a small pool of water that appeared in an area previously dry as the proverbial bone.

Seawater farming can be emulated along most coastal deserts, where freshwater is generally too scarce for much traditional agriculture and food aid is often a must.

Gotta love it!