Quantcast
The Dutch Weed Burger is made from three types of algae. The Dutch Weed Burger

How Marine Algae Could Help Feed the World

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.

Photobioreactors produce algae using a light source and carbon dioxide. IGV Biotech, CC BY-SA

Producing Nanno

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.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Animals
The turkey ranch in Sonora is where Diestel keeps its pasture-raised birds. Jeanne Cooper

Popular Diestel Turkey Sold at Whole Foods Tests Positive for FDA-Prohibited Drugs

Diestel Turkey, sold by Whole Foods and other retailers at premium prices, says on its website that its "animals are never given hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants."

But Diestel Turkey samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest otherwise, leading consumers to wonder: Can these companies be trusted?

Keep reading... Show less
Animals

Slaughter of 90,000 Wild Horses Could Proceed Despite 80% Objection From American Public

The American Wild Horse Campaign on Thursday harshly criticized Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's appointment of Brian Steed, the former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as dangerous and out of step with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.

"Rep. Stewart is leading the charge to slaughter America's wild horses and burros over the opposition of 80 percent of Americans," said Suzanne Roy, AWHC Executive Director. "Putting his deputy at the helm of the agency charged with protecting these national icons is like putting the wolf in charge of the chicken coop."

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

Bright Idea: This Lamp Harvests Its Own Energy From Plants

Now that's green energy. Dutch product designer Ermi van Oers and her team are working on the first atmospheric lamp powered by living plants.

The Living Light does not require an electric socket. It can harvest its own energy through the photosynthetic process of the encased plant, which means the potential of this off-grid light source could be "huge," as Van Oers told Dezeen.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate

Landmark Youth Climate Lawsuit Heads to Federal Appeals Court

There has been a significant development in the constitutional climate change lawsuit so far successfully prosecuted by 21 youth plaintiffs: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to hear oral argument over whether the Trump administration can evade trial currently set for Feb. 5, 2018. Oral arguments will be heard before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Dec. 11 and can be watched on a live stream beginning at 10 a.m. PST.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Martin Schulz / Flickr

Pope Francis: These 4 'Perverse Attitudes' Could Push Earth to Its Brink

Pope Francis issued a strong message to negotiators at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany on Thursday, warning them not to fall into "four perverse attitudes" regarding the future of the planet—"denial, indifference, resignation and trust in inadequate solutions."

Francis, who has long pressed for strong climate action and wrote his 2015 encyclical on the environment, renewed his "urgent call" for renewed dialogue "on how we are building the future of the planet."

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza sits near the Statoil contracted oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen. Greenpeacce

Groups Sue Norway Over Failure to Protect Environment for Future Generations

By David Leestma

Greenpeace and the Nature and Youth environmental group opened a lawsuit this week over Norway's failure to abide by its constitutional obligation to safeguard the environment for future generations.

The lawsuit, which focuses on local environmental damage and the contribution that oil extraction will make to climate change, challenges 10 licenses issued by the Norwegian government for exploration in the Barents Sea. Given to Statoil, Chevron and other oil companies, the licenses violate Norway's constitution and the Paris agreement, according to the plaintiffs. Government lawyers claim the case is a publicity stunt that risks valuable jobs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Lia Heifetz of Barnacle Foods hauls kelp for salsa. Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

A Plea for Kelp: These Farmers and Chefs Want to Make Seaweed the Next Superfood

By Sarah Bedolfe

Summer in southeast Alaska is kelp season for the cofounders of Barnacle Foods, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern. Each week, the pair watches the tides and weather, waiting for the right moment to cruise out to the abundant kelp beds offshore. They lean over the side of the boat and pull up the fronds and stalks, one piece at a time. As soon as they get back to shore, they start processing the day's harvest into a local delicacy: kelp salsa.

Salsa and Alaskan algae might seem like odd bedfellows, but for Barnacle Foods, it's a calculated decision. The kelp's savory notes make the salsa's flavor "a little more explosive," according to Kern. And the pairing is also a practical one. "Salsa is such a familiar food item," Heifetz said. It's "a gateway to getting more people to eat seaweed."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Massive Pipeline Leak Shows Why Nebraska Should Reject Keystone XL

About 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil leaked Thursday from TransCanada's Keystone oil pipeline near Amherst, South Dakota, drawing fierce outcry from pipeline opponents.

The leak, the largest spill to date in South Dakota, comes just days before Nebraska regulators decide on whether its controversial sister project—the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline—will go forward.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!