According to the UN, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050. This increased population will require a doubling of our current food supply. It is estimated that currently 1 billion people have inadequate protein intake. With current food production accounting for nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, can we rely on the existing food system to feed the ever-increasing global population?
The answer is NO! We have seen amazing innovation in food production, most notably the alternative meat products that have come to market in recent years. While these products dampen the environmental footprint by reducing the need for animal protein, they still compete for valuable farmland by relying on soy and pea proteins. In addition, growing these crops requires chemical fertilizers that create run-off, harming our waterways and oceans. As plant-based proteins become more popular, these issues will become more critical.
So why not look to microalgae? Algae contain protein, fat, and carbohydrates as well as many micronutrients that support optimal health. It is fast growing, sustainable, does not compete for useful farmland and requires only sunlight and CO2. With CO2 being the most abundant greenhouse gas out there, using algae to increase the food supply is a twofer when it comes to helping the environment and feeding the world.
Historically, lack of controlled, economical and safe microalgae production has limited its use. Harvesting from natural environments or manufactured open ponds and raceways are not efficient production models. Additionally, they allow for potentially harmful contaminants to be co-harvested with the algae. Other production models include intensive capital investment in fermentation systems or limited capacity bioreactors. Recent advances have been made to create photobioreactors (PBR) that are cost effective and, with high volume production, reduce overall costs. When the tubes of these bioreactors are vertical (VPBR), they become extremely efficient in footprint, reducing the costs associated with the surrounding infrastructure.
Algae, at least for the western world, is not considered tasty. It’s currently used as structural components, called alginates, making ice cream creamier, sauces smoother and salad dressings thicker. Alginates are highly processed concentrating a gel-like component lacking in taste and smell. But this processing does not create useful nutritional ingredients like protein, fats and carbohydrates. Therefore, different technology is needed to be used to create these useful food components. Separating and purifying the protein, fat and carbohydrate compounds, while creating a neutral taste and texture will allow microalgae to be incorporated into a multitude of foods and beverage. Imagine algae burgers, shakes and even fries. This is truly the future of food.