Since I’m in the middle of a 21-day vegan diet, getting enough protein is important to me.
Algae are a large and diverse group of simple, typically autotrophic organisms, such as the giant kelps that grow to 65 meters in length. They are photosynthetic like plants, and “simple” because their tissues are not organized into the many distinct organs found in land plants. The largest and most complex marine forms are called seaweeds.
The Japanese know all about this. When I spent a summer in Japan, every meal was accompanied by soy sauce, rice and yes, seaweed.
“Algae is really the premiere sustainable source of raw materials for food and feed,” said Jim Astwood, vice president of product management for Aurora Algae, a company that’s been cultivating the plant in the desert of western Australia to explore its commercial possibilities. “The water and land footprint is small compared to traditional agriculture and there’s high productivity.
Algae can be cultivated in human-made ponds on otherwise unusable desert land, requiring only sunlight and seawater to grow. It’s about 30 times more productive than soy (and 50 times more productive than corn), but requires only 1 percent as much fresh water. It also has a much higher protein content — up to 70 percent, compared with about 10 percent in corn and 40 percent in soy. Replacing at least some corn- and soybean-based livestock feed with algae-derived feed would not only shrink the life-cycle impact of meat, it could free up a lot of land currently devoted to the production of animal feed, making more of it available for crops that directly feed humans instead.
“If we could use this biomass to replace soybeans [in animal feed], then we could have a lot of soybeans for human consumption,” explained Xingen Lei, a Cornell professor who’s been testing algae as an animal feed supplement.
Lei’s research is funded by a $5.5 million government grant to investigate algae’s role in solutions to looming food and energy crises. The U.S. government funded research into algae’s potential as a biofuel for almost two decades, but discontinued the program in 1996 after concluding that algal biofuels could not be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
But oil prices have risen so much since then that algae has received renewed attention from investors as a potential fuel source.
In addition to protein, algae contains omega-3 fatty acids, an important nutrient for human survival. We think of omega-3s as coming from fish — we’re told to take fish oil supplements or eat salmon or sardines in order to get a healthy dose. But as Astwood explains: “Fish don’t make omega-3s, little fish eat crustaceans that eat algae. Algae is the source of omega-3s.”
Since algae is at the base of the food chain, using it as a source of omega-3s and protein for humans would also greatly reduce the risk of mercury contamination that occurs in tuna and other fish higher up on the food chain (mercury bioaccumumlates, or increases in the concentration as you go up the food chain). And in the health food world, algae-derivedprotein could offer a less-processed alternative to currently popular supplements like soy protein isolates.
Coming soon to a store near you…
Photo Credit: alex quinn
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