Superfoods go to the roof!

Long prized by Asian cultures as both a delicacy and a rich source of healthy nutrients, microalgae spirulina, an edible green algae, has gained global recognition as a superfood supplement. Microalgae spirulina is high in protein, omega 3 fatty acids, as well as a wide array of other nutrients, and is most often sold in powder form and as a food supplement.

Spirulina in tablet form (By-Perdita-at-the-English-Wikipedia-Public-domain-from-Wikimedia-Commons)
Spirulina in tablet form (By-Perdita-Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Microalgae also provides substantial environmental benefits as the plants have a high consumption of carbon dioxide and can produce high yields without pesticides and minimal water usage compared to cereal and livestock production.

Some of CCRI’s recent research has considered the role of cities in the future of agricultural food production. Microalgae provides a perfect crop for urban farming as it does not require large swathes of agricultural land and can be grown in small urban spaces, such as the rooftop of the Novotel Hotel in Bangkok.  A Thai company, EnerGaia,  is now growing spirulina in unused spaces – rooftops, vacant parking lots – to encourage more urban farming and is starting with microalgae spirulina.

Despite its proven health benefits, large scale commercial production of microalgae seems a long way off, mainly because of unfamiliarity. Microalgae spirulina is said to have anti-aging benefits, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, increase energy, reduce blood pressure and increase anti-oxidants in the blood so it is not surprising that at the moment it is spirulina dietary supplements that has the largest production volumes worldwide.

Spirulina powder (Music4thekids-Own-work-CC-BY-SA-3.0-via-Wikimedia-Commons)
Spirulina powder (Music4thekids-CC-BY-SA-3.0-via-Wikimedia-Commons)

The full benefits of microalgae spirulina have yet to be fully explored, but there is much potential for harvesting some algae varieties into a rich source of sustainable biofuels and also animal feeds. This ‘superfood’ could well be an important contribution to help meet the demands of renewable energy and alternative foods for the growing global population in the years to come .

Mauro Vigani, CCRI’s expert on the economics of agricultural biotechnologies, was cited in the article in the Guardian regarding research he has carried out on the miscroalgae sector. Here he talks more in depth about his research:

“Research that I have authored suggests that there are two main factors that can drive the growth of the microalgae sector for food: reducing production costs and improving consumer demand.

“It is important to reduce the production costs to be competitive with other agricultural commodities. Production costs should be reduced during the growing phase of the microalgae in open or closed systems, but also during the purification and extraction phase of the production process.

“During the growing phase, energy costs constitute a great share of the total costs. To reduce energy costs, more technological innovation is needed, which currently is mainly coming from private companies rather than public research institutes.

“Another way to reduce production costs during the growing phase is by increasing the growing efficiency of the microalgae. This can be achieved through microalgae strains with improved photosynthetic efficiency. Biotechnologies are of great help to improve photosynthetic efficiency.

“The purification and extraction costs largely depend on the final use of the microalgae. For example, drying systems to simply obtain microalgae powders are less costly than the extraction of specific nutrients. Biotechnologies can also be of help here through new microalgae strains with higher content of useful nutrients.

“Concerning the consumer demand, a higher request of microalgae products can stimulate innovation in the sector, justifying greater investments for research and development. Consumers could be made aware of the advantages of microalgae products over traditional ones, such as enhanced nutrients intake thanks to higher product quality related to their chemical conformation.

“In order to increase the consumers’ knowledge on microalgae products, some producers consider it beneficial to have the support of government institutions, such as public campaigns. However, microalgae is quite a specialist sector and governments can decide to allocate their budget on other nutritional campaigns.

“Overall, despite the challenges the sector still needs to address, its growth potential is quite high. Indeed, since 2000 the microalgae sector has seen growth of five to ten folds, depending on the product and on the country. So far, the greatest investments have been made in the US, Australia and Asia. In the EU, Spain is probably the country expanding the most this sector.”

Examples from the Spanish companies producing spirulina include AlgaEnergy and NEOALGAE.

Mauro co-wrote a paper, which was published in 2015 in Trends in Food Science and Technology on market opportunities and challenges for food and feed products from the microalgae sector in the EU. The paper can be accessed here. Its full reference is:

Vigani, M.,  Parisi, C., Rodríguez-Cerezo, E., Barbosa, M. J., Sijtsma, L. Ploeg, M. and Enzing, C. (2015) Food and feed products from micro-algae: Market opportunities and challenges for the EU. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 42 (1). pp. 81-92. ISSN 0924-2244.

You can also access the research report that Mauro contributed to for the European Commission Joint Research Centre, entitled “Microalgae-based products for the food and feed sector: an outlook for Europe”, on which his commentary is based.