Algae, Which You Know From Pond Scum, Could Be the Food of the Future
These tiny plants are nutritious, semi-delicious, and good for the planet
“We live in a world where both the number of hungry and the number of obese people is rising,” Evan Fraser tells OneZero. As the research chair on global food security at the University of Guelph, Fraser spends a lot of time thinking about how and what we’ll eat in the future given this present dilemma, and he thinks one solution might already be growing naturally in ponds and lakes.
The United Nations estimates that more than 113 million people across the world experienced acute hunger and malnutrition in 2018, even as 1.3 billion tons of food, a third of the total produced for human consumption, is wasted every year. This problem will likely only get worse: Crop yields are expected to decrease progressively because erosion is depleting our soil, and rising temperatures and extreme weather are turning fertile lands into desert. Meanwhile, the demand for resource-intensive foods like vegetable oils and meat is expected to keep rising as the world population grows.
We need food that’s nutritious and can be grown sustainably on a large scale. Enter algae: These aquatic plants, which lie at the bottom of the food chain, are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They can withstand high temperatures and even grow in saltwater. And by absorbing carbon dioxide from their surroundings, they help greatly reduce our carbon footprint on the planet.
In their raw form, algae taste like grass. But when processed properly, they can be converted into a number of healthy and delicious food additives. Scientists are betting they’ll be the food of the future — if humans can be convinced to eat something they associate with green slime.
We need a food that’s nutritious and can be grown sustainably at a large scale. Enter algae.
To illustrate this possibility, Fraser refers to a startup in Hamilton, Ontario called Pond Tech, which uses waste carbon dioxide and heat from a large steel-manufacturing facility nearby to produce protein-rich algae like chlorella and spirulina. The algae are grown inside large bioreactors that draw carbon dioxide from the factory through a process that’s mostly autonomous and requires minimal supervision.
Algae can be integrated into our food system in several different ways, like algae-based drink powders, processed food such as breakfast bars, and, for those who’d rather not eat it, in the form of livestock feed. Traditional feed sources like corn and soybean are very energy-intensive to produce, and replacing them with algae, which requires far less energy to grow, can help reduce the environmental footprint of livestock.
Pond Tech isn’t the only startup betting on algae. Located in the deserts between Texas and New Mexico, a startup called iWi uses rows of saltwater ponds supplied by underground aquifers to grow a strain of microalgae — which is only visible to the naked eye in large numbers — called nannochloropsis. Eneko Ganuza Taberna, iWi’s vice president of research and development, tells OneZero that the company’s large-scale “algaculture” farms are designed to “take resources that many may see as waste and turn them into high-quality food and nutrients.” It uses infertile land that cannot be used for farming and saltwater to grow algae across shallow open ponds that maximize their exposure to sunlight.
In addition to being rich in essential and branched-chain amino acids, nannochloropsis produces eicosapentaenoic acid, an easily absorbed omega-3 fatty acid, says Taberna. It also grows easily in saltwater habitats, making it ideal for iWi’s business model. However, the company’s approach to growing algae in large controlled environments on outdoor fields instead of in a lab presents its own list of hurdles.
By replicating algae’s natural habitat, iWi aims to grow the algae as organically as possible. As with other plants, algae is vulnerable to pests, but nannochloropsis likes to grow in conditions unsuitable for the growth of many other microbes, making pest control without herbicides or pesticides less of a challenge. Still, the company must consistently monitor their produce and employ strategies like pH regulation to keep invasive microbes at bay.
Harvesting these microscopic organisms without wasting too much water or energy also presents a challenge. iWi uses a hollow fiber membrane to trap microalgae while releasing the bulk of water back into the system to prevent wastage. The entire harvesting process is completed using gravity and requires almost no additional energy input.
“My feeling is that finding new solutions… is essential to making sure that the future is well-fed.”
Other companies getting into the algae business include Nonfood, a Los Angeles-based startup that produces protein bars made entirely out of plant-based ingredients like algae, and Thrive, a Dutch startup making culinary oil from microalgae to be used as a healthier alternative for vegetable and olive oils. Thrive claims its oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats. There is also Algatek, a Spanish company developing algae-based health drinks.
These companies are all looking to monetize on a sustainable business trend that could very well end up helping the planet immensely. But Fraser and other experts are cautiously optimistic about the value of these startups.
“With rising demands and climate change, added to which are a number of complex issues affecting equity and distribution, my feeling is that finding new solutions — new ways of producing food, better distribution systems, and work on poverty and gender equality in economically marginal parts of the world — is essential to making sure that the future is well-fed,” Fraser says. As with all foods, the way the algae is grown and cultured is important in determining how sustainable the process truly is.