Coastal algae farms proposed as solution to future food crisis
A new paper published in the journal Oceanography speculates future global food production problems could be solved by growing protein-dense microalgae in coastal aquaculture farms. The modeling boldly projects 100% of global protein demands could be provided by marine microalgae in 2050.
Over the next 35 years the world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people. To feed billions more people there will need to be significant changes to global food production systems. Charles Greene, from the department of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, said the world faces challenges from climate change and environmental degradation limiting agricultural output.
“We just can’t meet our goals with the way we currently produce food and our dependence on terrestrial agriculture,” said Greene.
The new paper from Greene and colleagues presents a scenario where new onshore aquaculture farms could grow high volumes of microalgae. The paper claims the environmental footprint of these novel farms would reduce deforestation and require no soil or fertilizer.
“We have an opportunity to grow food that is highly nutritious, fast-growing, and we can do it in environments where we’re not competing for other uses,” explained Greene. “And because we’re growing it in relatively enclosed and controlled facilities, we don’t have the same kind of environmental impacts.”
As well as predicting global yields of protein to effectively feed billions of people, the paper models the best geographical locations for these onshore aquaculture facilities. In terms of suitable land, it is suggested the optimal locations for these algae farms would be across coasts of northern Australia, eastern Africa and the northwest of America.
“Algae can actually become the breadbasket for the Global South,” Greene added. “In that narrow strip of land, we can produce more than all the protein that the world will need.”
The paper is obviously wildly speculative and primarily presented as a thought experiment more than a realistic proposal. Perhaps the most pressing hurdle to this kind of proposal is finding ways for people to incorporate algae into their diets. While hypothetically algae could sustain 10 billion people, the reality is it would never completely replace other foods. Instead it could have a variety of other applications in the agricultural industry.
A recent article from Jules Siedenburg, at the University of East Anglia, proposed several key applications for algae that could significantly reduce current agricultural impacts on the environment. Alongside using it as a nutritional food supplement, Siedenburg said microalgae could be used to feed livestock and serve as a new kind of fertilizer for crop production.
"Early studies of microalgae-based biofertilizers and biostimulants suggest they can boost productivity while also building the resilience of crops to climate-related stresses like elevated temperatures, water scarcity and soil salinity," Siedenburg wrote in a piece for The Conversation. "Treated maize plants, for example, showed more developed roots than untreated plants. This resulted in better resistance to drought."
Algae is undeniably an easy-to-cultivate, high-protein crop and researchers are working on plenty of ways to get it into our diets without forcing us to munch a handful of it in its natural form. Earlier this year a startup presented a smoked salmon substitute made completely from spirulina, a common blue-green algae. Another company a few years ago proposed an engineered form of seaweed designed to taste like bacon. Maybe the solution here is bacon-flavored algae?
The new study was published in Oceanography.
Source: Cornell University