Farming Marine Microalgae – Droughtproof Agriculture

The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.8 billion, consuming 50% more protein than today. Animal production has increased four to five-fold since 1961 to meet the ever-increasing demand for protein, but at least 45% of the world’s 14 million square kilometres of agricultural land is already used for livestock feed production.

 

Australia is a major agricultural producer and exporter from a mix of irrigation and dry-land farming. However, as in most food exporting countries, climate change is predicted to cause decreased rainfall, exacerbating existing challenges to freshwater availability and protein production.

 

Plant-based alternatives to animal protein is one of the fastest growing segments of the food market, evidenced by the rapid increase in production of soy- or chickpea- based products such as “fishless tuna”, “meatless meat” and chicken-free chicken. While increasing availability of plant-based meat alternatives may provide some respite on demand for animal meat products, it increases demand for protein sourced from terrestrial crops.

 

Unless significant changes in protein farming practices occur, the combination of population growth, insufficient arable land, increasing demand for plant-based protein and climate change will inevitably lead to an uncontrollable global protein deficiency before 2050.

 

Marine microalgae and macroalgae assimilate carbon dioxide using the sun’s energy, generate 50% of the planet’s oxygen and are at the base of marine food webs. They grow faster and offer significantly higher annual protein yields per hectare than terrestrial crops such as soybean, pulse legumes, and wheat. They can play a significant role in the provision of non-allergenic plant-based protein with balanced amino acid profiles.

 

Algae are globally diverse, but with a particularly high diversity in Australia, with many species unique to this country.  More than 30,000 microalgal and 13,000 macroalgal species have been reported globally, with perhaps up to one million yet to be discovered, offering many novel food production possibilities.

 

Marine algae do not require freshwater or existing arable land to be commercially farmed, preserving resources required for conventional food crops. Furthermore, they evolved in harsh environments, often exposed to high oxidative and free-radical stresses, which has led to the development of natural protective systems, such as the production of pigments (e.g. carotenes, chlorophylls, and phycobiliproteins) and polyphenols (e.g., catechins, flavanols, and phlorotannins), which can impart health benefits to the consumer.

 

Photosynthetic marine microalgae are most commonly cultivated either in open outdoor raceway ponds or in closed photobioreactors. Photobioreactors are more expensive to install and operate and are therefore not suitable for low-value per kilogram food production. Outdoor raceway ponds in high-sunshine regions like Australia have the advantage of lower capital requirements and lower operating costs.

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