By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to reach approximately 9.8 billion. With so many mouths to feed and an agri-food system that accounts for a quarter of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, entrepreneurs are looking for food sources that champion both human and planetary health.
A growing number believe they have found it in seaweed. Some in macroalgae (or algae), and others in microalgae, the former of which are unlikely, are largely invisible to the eye.
Seaweed farming has some very obvious sustainability benefits, especially when it comes to its reliance – or lack thereof – on limited natural resources. When grown in the ocean, it does not require fresh water and does not compete with land-based crops. It is also grown without inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides.
And when microalgae are grown in tanks on land, the reliance on natural resources is minimal compared to conventional farming or cultivation.
But there are more sustainability benefits that may be less obvious to the general consumer, entrepreneurs suggested at ProVeg Incubator and Zinitinus’ Future Food Series event last week.
Producing proteins from algae on Mars
For one thing, microalgae don’t need to be grown near oceans at all. In fact, cultivation systems can be installed in some of the most unlikely places on earth…and even further.
What European Algal Biomass Association Vice-President Alexandra Mosch finds particularly “cool” about the production of microalgae is that it can grow in closed photobioreactors (PBRs) or open ponds in non-arable areas, such as deserts.
“This means they can also be grown in buildings or on rooftops, or integrated as vertical farms,” Mosch, who is also a member of the advisory board for algae supplier Allmicroalgae, told delegates. It could also prove beneficial in terms of food miles, she suggested, since the majority of people around the world now live in cities.
Given the adaptability of microalgae production systems, one could even conceive of microalgae foods being produced in some of the most desolate landscapes, suggested Eugene Wang, CEO of Singapore-based Sophie’s BioNutrients.
The start-up, which is expanding its presence in the Netherlands, ferments microalgae in bioreactors, isolates their proteins and turns them into powder for food formulation.
“It may be that when Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars, we can potentially install our technology … system on Mars – the same as the one we are going to install in Europe – and produce proteins from microalgae.
“Why? Because where there is water, there will be microalgae,” he explained. “And we can use microalgae from this planet to [create] food for the new settlers on this new planet.
“Maybe it’s too extreme [a concept] for a lot of people, but I’m just trying to point out that you don’t really have to be affected by global warming or the weather, and you don’t need a lot of space. You can simply use fermentation technology.
How can algae fight against nitrification?
Another benefit of algae production is that, when managed correctly, it has the potential to reduce the impact of difficult environmental issues.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is one such problem, with human activities – including the excessive use of fertilizers in conventional agriculture – largely to blame.
As nitrogen and phosphorus in the water encourage algae growth, water systems can quickly become overrun, leading to algae blooms. Algal blooms can be toxic and have been known to kill fish, mammals and birds.
But is there a way to take advantage of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution for good? Genesea, a Tel Aviv University spin-off that makes protein isolates and other ingredients for making plant-based foods from offshore marine macroalgae, is investigating a solution.
“We need nitrogen for algae to grow” explained co-founder Alex Golberg. “So one of the first things we did a few years ago was create a world map of where there are…both natural nutrients coming up from the bottom of the ocean to the surface, and nutrification – where… the fertilizers wash away. from agriculture to the sea.
According to Genesea, these are areas that could prove fertile for growing algae.
Golberg also pointed to the relevance of ocean currents. “We knew that any type of nutrient you put [in the sea] will immediately disperse elsewhere. You must therefore locate the farm in an area where the current [transports] nutrient supply.
Along the same lines, Jacob von Manteuffel, co-founder of German brands BettaF!sh and Nordic Oceanfruit – both of which use ocean-grown seaweed in their food products – sees a “huge opportunity” to buckle down. the cycle.
“A lot of the phosphates and nitrates that we put into our agricultural systems end up in the ocean and that’s a huge waste of resources. This is having very bad impacts on our ecosystem in the ocean, and by growing algae we have the opportunity to close the cycle and recover nutrients that we really cannot afford to lose right now.
Should seaweed farming be made more sustainable?
There are concerns that seaweed grown in the ocean may not be the silver bullet that many are hoping for. Algae cultivation can indeed create environmental problems in the oceans when high-density cultivation leads to biomass degradation and methane production.
“It can actually turn into a big swamp in the middle of the ocean. It could happen,” said the Golberg of Genesea.
However, there are “lots” of projects underway, by the European Union and others, to explore how algae can be farmed in a foolproof and environmentally friendly way. “Which means there will be enough light available for all the other organisms that live here.”
One solution could be to build enclosures that allow sufficient amounts of light into the ocean, the co-founder continued. “These are real problems that exist, and communities are aware of them and the solutions are coming.”
Is the cultivation of algae likely to significantly harm the environment in this way in the short term? von Manteuffel of BettaF!sh and Nordic Oceanfruit is not convinced.
“We are destroying our oceans on a global scale, taking people’s resources by massive fishing fleets… and then we calculate whether seaweed farming could at some point have a speculative negative impact. It’s hypocrisy…
“Seaweed cultivation is still very small and the potential is huge. It’s far from harmful…”