Algae offer benefits such as cost-efficient production and multiple harvests during the year, plus future sustainability benefits that cannot be ignored. Learn about the technical advances being made in commercial algae cultivation, from an expert.
The 21st-century food and supplement industry faces the increasing challenge of satisfying consumer demand for nutritional value while being mindful of resource limitations. Take protein. Reports predict there will be an additional half-billion people to feed in 18 years, and another billion more in 30 years. The demand for protein will continue to rise-but feed production to create that protein from animals is currently lagging behind demand.
The need for alternative proteins is increasing, and the food industry has started to look at the specific advantages of algae on a variety of levels: ethical, technical, and economic. For example, algae’s high protein content and non-GMO, non-antibiotic, low-carbon footprint production story resonate across the political sphere with consumers and the media. Given algae’s many benefits-including efficiency, cost to produce, inherent nutritional qualities, and potential for high-value products-algae ingredients are becoming a natural focus of development for food and supplement producers.
Andrew A. Dahl is president and CEO of Zivo Bioscience (Keego Harbor, MI), a biotech/agtech R&D company engaged in the commercialization of nutritional and medicinal products derived from proprietary algal strains.
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Algae Is an Ethical Source of Nutrition
The growing human population, in the coming decades, will require a significant boost in food supply. Any ethical solution will involve ensuring that people are fed in ways beneficial to them and to the planet on which we live. Algae fit this bill for several reasons.
First, algae’s high protein content is a boon to human diets in an era when the damage wrought by poor nutrition, in developing and modern societies alike, is an increasing priority. Several varieties of algae in fact provide more protein than an equivalent amount of beef liver and supply more vitamins and micronutrients overall than broccoli.
In addition, a good many algae strains have been cultivated and improved naturally, avoiding the stigma attached to foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have been cited by scientists and consumer and environmental groups for potential health risks.
Furthermore, algae production generally does not require the use of antibiotics, pesticides, or herbicides, thus avoiding any risk of contributing to the ingestion of harmful by-products of agricultural production. When cultivated and processed properly, algal biomass for food or feed applications is also free of soy, lecithin, hormones, and animal metabolites.
Certain strains of algae can be excellent sources of a complete, plant-based protein, along with healthful non-starch polysaccharides and bioavailable vitamins and micronutrients. In these strains, the protein and non-starch polysaccharides comprise the largest nutritional components by weight. These strains also compare favorably with other healthful protein sources (e.g. beef liver, spinach, and yogurt) and offer relatively high amounts of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, and fiber, as well.
Apart from nutritional considerations, algae cultivation is also ethical from an environmental standpoint. Compared to corn feed, for example, algae require only 10% water consumption, 15% land use, and 10% fossil fuel use to produce the equivalent amount of protein. In general, algae grown in sunlit ponds have a low carbon footprint, with two pounds of carbon dioxide capable of yielding one pound of algal biomass and one pound of free oxygen. Algae are a quintessentially “solar powered” food source.
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Technical Advances Boost Algae Production
In addition to these considerations, the nutrition industry may be impressed by technical advances that have been made in algae production. Cultivating algae strains has been proven to be relatively straightforward and offers an extended growing season in both temperate and desert-like zones. Algae cultivation has been made successful on non-arable land and even brownfields. Algae also allow multiple annual harvests and are geared toward locally available nutrients and basic infrastructure.
One of the ways in which to produce algae is phototrophically. A wide range of in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo studies have validated the beneficial aspects of specific, optimized phototrophic (“sun-loving”) algal strains grown in ponds. Research on safety and nutritional value, cultivation techniques, and post-harvest processing have made it possible to create novel nutritional platforms. These models avoid costly and complex fermentation systems, photo-bioreactors, panels, and tubes associated with algae production in favor of more basic models: covered, shallow ponds constructed of inexpensive, readily available materials obtainable in many parts of the world.
Newer strains of algae can be made to grow rapidly and continuously with yield targets per liter as good as or better than phototrophic species currently under cultivation. Commercial scale-up efforts and post-processing experiments are currently being conducted. And unlike grain or vegetable crops, all parts of the organism can be consumed. The algal biomass can be harvested and used in its high-moisture form following pasteurization, and the biomass can be freeze-dried or desiccated whole. Experiments are underway to optimize the delivery of dried algal biomass.
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Algae Offer Significant Cost Efficiencies
As a result of these advances, algae offer significant cost efficiencies to the nutrition industry. Algae strains are optimized for low startup costs, and their multiple annual harvests make their production economically attractive. Currently, no generally accepted econometric analyses are being applied to algae production worldwide, but the development of global standards and benchmarks could hasten the adoption of algae as a cash crop. Doing so would make it easier to approach the cultivation of algae from a return-on-investment perspective. It would also be possible to design and engineer capital-efficient and cost-efficient infrastructure that could be tested, measured, and refined to maximize both production yield and return on investment. Global food and supplement companies could be involved to help provide the relevant standards. One of the goals of such a program would be to drive toward industry toward the lowest-cost and highest-quality algae-based proteins.
As an example, consider clean water, which is quite expensive in many parts of the world, both monetarily and in the amount of effort required to secure an abundant and reliable supply. Under ideal conditions, fast-growing algae may produce many times the amount of protein as soybean using a fraction of the amount of water consumed in growing soybean. Not only is the water consumption drastically cut, but the water can be recycled several times for reuse. Furthermore, several drying methods for algal biomass are under investigation with an emphasis on low or no energy consumption-another potential source of cost savings for those companies involved in these endeavors.
The ideal algal strain would flourish in the simplest of production environments at the lowest possible cost without necessary dependence on fossil fuels to maintain high yields-an affordable approach that can be practiced most anywhere.
In light of its ethical advantages, as well as the technical advances behind its development and the cost efficiencies it promises, algae hold a significant value proposition for the global nutrition industry. A world that recognizes the potential of algae might be better prepared for the challenges that face us all in the decades ahead.
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