Algae: The Future of Food and Feed?
FAI is a world leader in exploring the base of the aquatic food chain for healthy and affordable alternative sources of proteins and nutrients - algae. In light of land and fresh water becoming increasingly scarce, algae’s rich biodiversity and high levels of protein and lipids (Omega3, EPA) lead many to believe in its future potential as a food crop for both people and animals.
Algae are the fastest growing plant organisms in nature and have the ability to convert large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen. There are two broad categories of algae: macroalgae and microalgae1. Macroalgae are seaweeds, like dulse and kelp, they're large and multicellular while Microalgae are generally single-celled organisms. All species are photosynthetic like plants, using sunlight, carbon dioxide and simple dissolved nutrients to produce a biomass rich in carbohydrates, oils, protein, vitamins and organic minerals. In the absence of light, some algae species can be also be grown directly on organic carbon compounds like sugars and starches. Because they lack stems, roots and leaves algae grow much faster than land plants and can triple or quadruple their biomass every day2.
A number of companies see a bright future in microalgae as an alternative protein source in health foods, according to a recent report by NPR3. FAI’s sister company, Belgium based Tom Algae has developed its own microalgal ‘cultivar’ and manufactures’ a freeze dried product exceptionally rich in Omega 3 fatty acids both (EPA and DHA), proteins and vitamins for feed and enrichment source in hatcheries for shrimps. Their product is a game changer in algae innovation as it can be stored for more than 12 months and can replace the often-unpredictable live feed that is currently used in the industry. Tomalgae’s production takes place in open raceway ponds inside greenhouses – a proven and scalable controlled environment technology that enables year-round production.
“There is no doubt about algae’s great potential” says Dr. Tim Atack, director of FAI Aquaculture’s Ardtoe Marine Research Facility in Scotland, “however there are lots of challenges to overcome before algae of any kind becomes a mainstream product.” For microalgae cost of production and the ability to produce enough biomass consistently to be of interest to any large-scale producer are major obstacles to commercialization. “If you want to offer a viable alternative to readily available plant-based proteins like soy, or replace fish meal and fish oil in feed, you have to be able to produce tens of thousands of tonnes a year– not the hundreds of kilos needed to make an impact on many of the current niche markets for algae.”
Due to some of the immediate challenges with scale in using microalgae in large volume production, Dr Atack is directing his immediate R&D work towards macroalgae for human consumption, despite its lower quality in terms of lipids. “Macroalgae has the potential to be grown cheaply in the sea with no added nutrients and no artificial light,” he says. While yields have yet to be maximized, he believes production on the 50-100 tonnes wet weight (or 5 to 15 tonnes dry weight) per hectare should be possible to achieve.
What is certain is that algae is not yet a food, fuel of feed commodity ready for primetime. However, algae’s long list of beneficial qualities makes it a promising candidate as both food and feed for the future. Judging by the energy and passion of those working to realize the potential of these tiny organisms to help solve some of our biggest challenges4, one thing is clear - it is an exciting time to be an algae pioneer.