By William Moomaw and Asaf Tzachor
Our planet faces a growing food crisis. According to the United Nations, more than 800 million people are regularly undernourished. By 2050, an additional 2 to 3 billion new guests will join the planetary dinner table.
Meeting this challenge involves not only providing sufficient calories for every person, but also assuring a balanced diet that includes the protein and nutrients that are essential to good health. In a newly published study, we explain how marine microalgae could be a sustainable solution for solving global macro-hunger.
Problems with Current Food Production Systems
The current Western diet requires vast amounts of land, water and energy, is heavily polluting and is a major contributor to climate change. Providing nutritious food for an ever-growing global population with increasing per capita demand is pushing our current food production system beyond its limits.
Livestock production is replacing forests with cropland and pastures for meat and animal feed. Nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer used to grow feed grain and other crops is degrading soils and creating biological dead zones in some 400 estuaries around the world.
Fish are an important source of omega-3 fatty acids and essential amino acids that make up our proteins. However, eating fish has some downsides. They can concentrate heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals in their tissues and pass them on to us. Furthermore, most ocean fisheries are overfished or at maximum production.
A Chilean fishing vessel nets some 400 tons of mackerel. NOAA
Aquaculture is producing a growing share of world seafood. But fish farms can have serious environmental impacts, including water pollution, disease transmission to wild fish and habitat destruction. Demand for small ocean fish to feed those raised on farms is depleting wild stocks.
An Alternative Approach: Cutting Out the "Middle Fish"
In our paper, we propose an alternative solution: commercial production of marine microalgae as a staple human food and feed for animals and farmed fish. These tiny organisms are the ultimate source of omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids that humans need in our diets, and which many of us get by eating fish. But fish are merely aquatic intermediaries in the nutrition business. We can feed the world more efficiently by "cutting out the middle fish."
Microalgae are a nearly untapped resource, and are found in both freshwater and marine aquatic systems. Although they are only few micrometers in size, they produce amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polymers and carbohydrates.
For example, the omega-3 rich microalgae Nannochloropsis oculata, or simply Nanno, is a promising potential source of high-nutrient food and feed. It is 40 percent protein by dry weight, of which one-third contains essential amino acids, and 6 percent EPA omega-3 essential fatty acid in a highly bioavailable form.
Only a handful of algal species are used commercially now, but hundreds of strains have the potential to become food and feed sources. Microalgae are currently used as a food ingredient, a food supplement and as aquafeed for fish.
Microalgae are commercially cultivated using several methods that have a range of sustainability footprints. The first is an aerobically fermented system, where cultivation is performed in dark, mixing vessels using sugar as the main energy source for the algae. Algae may also be cultivated in open ponds, using either fresh- or saltwater, carbon dioxide and sunlight. Alternatively, they may be grown in brackish water or seawater in closed, transparent tubes called photobioreactors.
Nanno is currently being grown at a commercial scale using brackish water in outdoor ponds with added carbon dioxide in Texas, and in photobioreactors using seawater and carbon dioxide at a geothermal power station in Iceland. Here sunlight is replaced by efficient LED lights powered by inexpensive, zero-polluting renewable electricity from the power plant.
Photobioreactors require the least amount of water and fertile land. These reactors are like LEGO blocks that can be stacked vertically. Since it is a closed system, this approach minimizes loss of water through evaporation.
One sustainability metric for comparing protein production from animals, plants and marine algae is the amount of land and water needed to produce an equal quantity of essential amino acids from each type of food. We calculate that producing one kilogram of beef-sourced essential amino acids requires 148,000 liters of freshwater and 125 square meters of fertile land. In contrast, producing the same amount from Nanno raised in an open pond with brackish water requires only 20 liters of freshwater and 1.6 square meters of nonfertile land.
Land and water requirements for the production of essential amino acids from various sources: freshwater usage and annual land productivity. Industrial Biotechnology, CC BY-ND
Counterintuitively, some plant protein requires very large amounts of land and water, even relative to some meat sources. For example, peas require about twice as much freshwater and 6.5 times the footprint of fertile land to produce the same amount of essential amino acids as chicken.
Turning Microalgae Into Food Products
How does one eat Nanno? Currently it comes as a soft gel capsule of marine microalgae oil, marketed as an alternative to krill or fish oil as a daily source for omega-3's. In powdered form, whole algae or algae extract could serve as an ingredient in health bars, sports snacks or pasta. Whole algae, such as Spirulina and Chlorella, are already commercially viable and have entered the market, along with other algae-based products such as algal tea and algal flour.
In its current form Nanno can be used as a protein and fatty acid supplement to improve the nutritional level of undernourished people around the world, and as feed for farmed fish and livestock. Most algae-based products are marketed in the U.S. as dietary supplements, but we believe the time has arrived to introduce algae-based foods to the dining table.
A number of companies already offer innovative alternative meat products, which have the potential to become large-scale food sources with nutritional content and taste comparable to meat. But products based on potatoes, wheat and soy still consume large amounts of freshwater and arable land, with the same environmental disadvantages of current agriculture.
In aquatic ecosystems, such as the Great Lakes, microalgae form the base of food webs.Michigan Sea Grant
By our calculation, pea- and soy-based alternative meat products with similar nutritional amino acid value to Nanno could be produced using 6.4 times less freshwater than beef, but would require 2.2 times more fertile land. In contrast, using marine microalgae reduces land usage by over 75-fold, since no fertile land is required, and lowers freshwater usage by a factor of 7,400.
Our paper describes a sustainable system for cultivating microalgae that is economically viable. The next step is persuading food scientists to utilize it as the basis for alternative meat products. Chefs and connoisseurs, gastronomes and gourmands, consumers and critics can all help the planet by taking part in a global transition to algae-burgers.
Isaac Berzin, founder and CTO of Algaennovation, contributed to this article.
William Moomaw is professor of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, where he is the founding director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, the Tufts Climate Initiative and co-founder of the Global Development and Environment Institute.
Asaf Tzachor is a doctoral candidate of Science, Technology and Policy at University College London, and Research Scholar at Columbia University in the City of New York.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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The Washington Redskins will retire their controversial name and logo, the National Football League (NFL) team announced Monday.
By Alyssa Murdoch, Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle and Sapna Sharma
Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
A Good News Story?<p>On the surface, the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13569" target="_blank">results from our study</a> appear to provide a "good news" story. Warming temperatures were linked to higher numbers of fish, more species overall and, therefore, potentially more fishing opportunities for northerners.</p><p>Initially, we were surprised to learn that warming was increasing the distribution of cold-adapted fish. We reasoned that modest amounts of warming could lead to benefits such as increased food and winter habitat availability without reaching stressful levels for many species.</p>
Photo of Arctic grayling (left) and Dolly Varden trout (right). Alyssa Murdoch / Lilian Tran / Nunavik Research Centre and Tracey Loewen / Fisheries and Oceans Canada<p>Yet, not all fish species fared equally well. Ecologically unique northern species — those that have evolved in colder, more nutrient-poor environments, such as Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout — were showing declines with warming.</p>
Fish Strandings and Buried Eggs<p>Recent news headlines run the gamut for Pacific salmon — from their increased escapades <a href="https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/more-pacific-salmon-showing-up-in-western-arctic-waters/" target="_blank">into the Arctic</a> to <a href="https://www.juneauempire.com/news/warm-waters-across-alaska-cause-salmon-die-offs/" target="_blank">massive pre-spawning die-offs</a> in central Alaska. Similarly, results from our study revealed different outcomes for fish depending on local climatic conditions, including Pacific salmon.</p><p>We found that warmer spring and fall temperatures may be helping juvenile salmon by providing a longer and more plentiful growing season, and by supporting early egg development in northern regions that were previously too cold for survival.</p><p>In contrast, salmon declined in regions that were experiencing wetter fall conditions, pointing to an increased risk of flooding and sedimentation that could bury or dislodge incubating eggs.</p>
Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
The Fate of Northern Fisheries<p>The promise of a warmer and more accessible Arctic has attracted mounting interest in new economic opportunities, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103637" target="_blank">including fisheries</a>. As warming rates at higher latitudes are already <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">two to three times global levels</a>, it seems probable that northern biodiversity will experience dramatic shifts in the coming decades.</p><p>Despite the many unknowns surrounding the future of Pacific salmon, many fisheries are currently <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/03632415.2017.1374251" target="_blank">thriving following warmer and more productive northern oceans</a>, and some <a href="https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic68876" target="_blank">Arctic Indigenous communities are developing new salmon fisheries</a>.</p><p>As warming continues, the commercial salmon fishing industry is poised to expand northwards, but its success will largely depend on extenuating factors such as <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060023067" target="_blank">changes to marine habitat and food sources</a> and <a href="https://www.yukon-news.com/news/promising-chinook-salmon-run-failed-to-materialize-in-the-yukon-river-panel-hears/" target="_blank">how many fish are caught during the freshwater stages of their journey</a>.</p><p>Even with the potential for increased northern biodiversity, it is important to recognize that some northern communities may be unable to adapt or may <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/searching-for-the-yukon-rivers-missing-chinook/" target="_blank">lose individual species that are associated with important cultural values</a>.</p>
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Why You Should Participate (and What Happens If You Don’t)<p>A <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30457-6/fulltext" target="_blank">Lancet study</a> from June 16, which looked at data from more than 40,000 people, found that COVID-19 transmission could be reduced by 64 percent through isolating those who have the coronavirus, quarantining their household, and contacting the people they may have exposed.</p><p>The combination strategy was significantly more effective than mass random testing or just isolating the sick person and members of their household.</p><p>However, contact tracing is only as effective as people's willingness to participate, and a small number of people who've contracted the coronavirus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.</p><p>"Contact tracers have all been hung up on, cussed at, yelled at," said Gullet.</p><p>The hesitation to talk to contact tracers often stems from concerns over privacy — a serious issue in healthcare.</p>
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