Quantcast
Food
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
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo

One Year Into the Trump Administration, Where Do We Stand?

By John R. Platt

What a long, strange year it's been.

Saturday, Jan. 20 marks the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration officially taking office after a long and arduous election. It's a year that has seen seemingly unending attacks on science and the environment, along with a rise in hateful rhetoric and racially motivated policies. But it's almost been met by the continuing growth of the efforts to resist what the Trump administration has to offer.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Chris J. Ratcliffe / Greenpeace

Greenpeace Slams Coca-Cola Plastic Announcement as ‘Dodging the Main Issue’

By Louise Edge

Friday Greenpeace criticized Coca-Cola's new global plastics plan for failing to address the urgency of ocean plastic pollution.

The long awaited policy from the world's largest soft drink company featured a series of measures weaker than those previously announced for Europe and the UK.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
The two young Iowa vandals knocked over 50 hives and exposed the bees to deadly winter temperatures. Colby Stopa / Flickr

Two Boys Charged With Killing Half a Million Honeybees in Iowa

Two boys were charged with killing more than a half million bees at a honey business in Iowa last month.

"All of the beehives on the honey farm were destroyed and approximately 500,000 bees perished in the frigid temperatures," Sioux City police said in a release.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy

Are Microwaves Really as Bad for the Environment as Cars?

According to many headlines blared around the Internet this week, "microwaves are as damaging to the environment as cars." But this misleading information, based on a new study from the University of Manchester, hopefully doesn't make you feel guilty about zapping your next Hot Pocket.

The research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found that microwave ovens across the European Union generate as much carbon dioxide as nearly 7 million cars and consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour of electricity per year. Okay, that sounds like a lot. But also consider that there are about 130 million microwaves in Europe and some 291 million vehicles on its roads.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
GMO

Monsanto's Roundup Destroys Healthy Microbes in Humans and in Soils

By Julie Wilson

We're only beginning to learn the importance of healthy gut bacteria to our overall health—and the relationship between healthy soil and the human microbiome.

We know that the human microbiome, often referred to as our "second brain," plays a key role in our health, from helping us digest the food we eat, to boosting our brain function and regulating our immune systems.

Keep reading... Show less
Trump Watch
Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers

By Elliott Negin

The Trump administration's testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Shutterstock

8 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure to Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals

By Caroline Cox

What keeps you up at night? Sick kids, restless pets, the latest tragedy on the evening news, politics, wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, money troubles, job stress, and family health and wellbeing? There is no shortage of concerns that make us all toss and turn.

But what keeps the chemical industry up at night? A couple of decades ago a senior Shell executive was asked this very question. The answer? Endocrine disruption.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights
Dave Atkinson / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why We'll March Again

This Sunday marks the first anniversary of the Women's March that happened on the day after Donald Trump's inauguration—the largest protest march in our nation's history. The Sierra Club was there that day, and we'll be there this year, too—at a significant moment for women's rights and justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

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