It is a well-known fact that by 2050, there will be another 2.5 billion mouths to feed. This means that the planet will need to produce double the amount of food, but with the impact of climate change, crop yields could fall by 25 percent before then. Now more than ever, the world is turning to science to provide the answers.
The solution? Algae.
The aquatic plant is part of a larger assemblage including seaweed and many single-celled forms. It grows in the shallower parts of the sea and is the most feasible option to increase our current feedstock. Global seaweed production has more than doubled from ten to 28 million tonnes within just 14 years. The superfood not only has economic benefits but considerable health advantages too. It has been claimed that algae is the most powerful food that we have on this planet. Now begins a new generation of seaweed farmers, novel foods and scientific innovation.
Whilst oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, they yield only two percent of our food. Algae would be one way to maximise this potential. It is nutrient-rich, low in fat and grows nine to twelve feet in just three months. And as one of the fastest growing plants, it also reduces the rates of carbon. Algae is a simple, single-cell organism which can thrive in polluted water and places that would commonly kill food crops.
"They are eaten by everything from the tiniest shrimp to the great blue whales. They are the base of all life and must be the future."
The potential is huge; scientists suggest that under optimum conditions commercial algae farms can produce 5,000-10,000 gallons of oil per acre, compared to just 350 gallons of ethanol biofuel per acre grown with crops like maize. In addition, algae could feed millions of animals and act as a fertiliser for many farmers.
But seaweed also offers a wide range of health benefits. Seaweed contains:
- A wide range of vitamins, minerals and proteins
- Fibre (Some species as much as 30%, although the green seaweeds do not contain any)
- Low fat levels (>3%), but the fat it contains is high in unsaturated fat
- Protein (from 8 to 25%)
The famous algae plant is starting to appear on restaurant menus under the more appetising names: “sea vegetable” or “sea lettuce”, and is being stocked on more supermarket shelves. Algae is already popularly consumed in Japan and China. And now it is starting to be used as fertilisers, soil conditioners and animal feed. "They range from giant seaweeds and kelps to microscopic slimes, they are capable of fixing CO2 in the atmosphere and providing fats, oils and sugars. They are eaten by everything from the tiniest shrimp to the great blue whales. They are the base of all life and must be the future," Arizona State university professor Mark Edwards says.
Scientists are also working on algae’s potential to replace US ethanol production with algae oil. Major airlines and shipping companies are now investigating a switch to algae oil, and smart clean tech money is being invested into nascent technology.
Several companies and government agencies are funding efforts to reduce operating costs and make algae fuel production a commercially viable option. The energy crisis and the world food crisis have ignited interest in algaculture (farming algae) for making biodiesel and other biofuels using land unsuitable for agriculture. Among algal fuels' attractive characteristics are that they can be grown with minimal impact on fresh water resources, can be produced using wastewater, are biodegradeable and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.