Algae Industry Expansion from Social and Political Drivers

by Mark Edwards

Avariety of economic, social and health factors will accelerate algae industry growth. The rising cost of fossil foods, fuels, and fertilizers, while bad for consumers, will prompt more R&D and heighten consumer interest in sustainable and affordable food and energy, (SAFE) production with algae. As each fossil resource becomes increasingly scarce and expensive – fertile soil, freshwater, fuel, fertilizer and fossil agricultural chemicals – food, energy and transportation costs will rise at an accelerating rate.

Our industrial fossil food production subsidizes genetically engineered monocultures that are refined to create cheap but empty calories. Over 92% of soybean and 88% of corn planted in the US in 2010 were genetically engineered, (GE) seeds that improve yields at an extraordinary and unsustainable high cost of fossil resources and human health. GE seeds cannot compete with weeds, so farmers must apply extra cultivation and herbicides. Cultivation consumes more fuel, disrupts and compresses the soil, which amplifies erosion and pollution. GE plants take energy from the roots to produce more grain. Short roots mean farmers must apply additional freshwater and fertilizers to support the GE crops.

Our modern shortsighted cheap foods policy must end soon. Cheap fossil foods shift consumer costs from food to health care. The Centers for Disease Control reported recently that one of three of our children born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes. The consensus report may have understated the threat because so many young people are obese and unable to pass physical screening tests for military service. Our cheap foods policy excludes our obese and diabetic children from the American Dream because their brains tend to be dull and fatigued. Imagine trying to teach these bloated children when they do not fit in their chairs and have trouble concentrating because their blood sugar levels are soaring and crashing. Children fighting constant exhaustion have no energy for exercise.

Medical research, nutritionists and journalists are creating a clear link between farm subsidies and empty calories at a time when politicians are calling for less spending. Spending on subsidies that create unhealthy foods represents a fool’s errand. The disturbingly poor health of our children, combined with the incredible erosion and pollution from fossil foods and ethanol production, should motivate Congress to shift farm policies to sustainable, ecologically positive and healthy food and energy production.

Sustainable initiatives

The Environmental Working Group, Sierra Club, WorldWatch, Greenpeace, Audubon Society, World Future Society and many other environmental and social organizations are promoting green initiatives that help consumers understand the value proposition for SAFE production. Scientific organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Working Group and The National Energy Independence Plan, NEIP, are providing the foundation for change in national energy policy. Strong voices including Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, Bill Bailey, NEI, Ken Cook, ERG and many others help move public opinion towards sustainable and renewable energy solutions.

Some communities are orchestrating the systematic collection of used restaurant cooking oils. They are home-brewing biodiesel. Arizona’s Desert Biofuels Initiative’s “Gold to Green” project, led by Brad Biddle, Eric Jones and Sam West hopes to refine every drop of used restaurant cooking oil in Arizona to green diesel and remove 100 tons of fossil fuel pollutants from Arizona’s air each year.

Sustainable communities with food, feed and fuels grown in freedom microfarms may become as widespread as Victory Gardens during World War II. Individuals and cooperatives may build cultivated algae production systems (CAPS) on rooftops, balconies or backyards, motivated by the desire to go green and to save money, eat healthy, nutritious foods and save the planet. Local cooperatives might operate to process the green biomass into usable food and other products.

Existing social groups might assist people to build hybrid solar, wind and algaculture systems that use 100% off-grid, renewable energy. Algae production requires small electric motors (or human labor) for mixing water, supplying nutrients, monitors and extraction. These energy needs may be supplied by hybrid systems that use the sun to produce electricity. Solar power suits algae well since solar energy radiates during the day and algae grow only when the sun shines. Tapping geothermal sources for warming greenhouses will enable year-round production in cold climates.

Algae Production Designs for Cities

Sustainable communities may operate collectively to produce possibly 50% of the food and biofuels for their community. Communities may compete for bragging rights for self-sufficiency, which means CAPS will sprout from vacant lots and rooftops. Community members may form cooperatives that specialize in specific foods, fuels or other coproducts – especially wine and beer.

Wine and beer made from algae grown in backyards or balconies will spur the explosion of algae cultivation. People like an affordable good food but they will embrace with even more excitement the opportunity to start their own winery or beer garden. When the proper algae cultivars are identified for wine and beer, people well beyond moonshine country will quickly jump on the home brew bandwagon.

Home brewing with grapes or hops is expensive and cumbersome. Typically, the grape juice feedstock must be purchased as well as the sugar, yeast and other supplies and equipment. Algae wine and beer home brewers can produce their feedstock. Companies that sell hot tubs and hydroponic supplies are likely to gain a huge new source of business.

Home brewers will have to come up with a better name than algae wine since the term algae lacks cachet. Brewers will also have fun describing the wine’s taste since classical features like “Earthy tones” may not be appropriate.

Snack foods

Snack foods will probably be the first algae-based foods that replace high caloric, low nutrient foods such as potato chips, snacks, French fries and candy bars. High fat foods can be delivered with equal taste appeal but save on fats and calories. Algae doughnuts, breads and pastries will provide excellent taste and texture as well as superior nutrition.

Fast food restaurants will offer healthier, tastier texturized algae protein burgers, chicken, tuna, salads and sushi. Consumers will have a choice; they can buy a conventional beef-based hamburger loaded with saturated fats for $9 or maybe instead an algae-based texturized vegetable protein burger for $3 that tastes great, is just as filling, and provides substantial health benefits.

Health and energy bars and drinks will became very popular as high-value algae nutrients, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and antioxidants producers integrate algae nutrients into snacks for health advocates. Nearly every compound found in health and energy bars today has an algae-based source that will often be cheaper to produce with a superior health profile.

Cloned, Tissue-Cultured Meat or Sheats

Consumers may prefer texturized algae protein to another new meat source they will see on the shelves at about the same time; lab-grown tissue-cultured meats. The concept of lab grown meat is not a new concept. Winston Churchill in his 1932 essay Fifty Years Hence wrote: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Scientists are growing tissue cultured meat in sheets that look similar to sheets of Nori, the popular seaweed used to wrap sushi rolls. The proposed name: sheats.

Another new food set entering the market will be processed insects such as grasshoppers and crickets. Insects have a nutty flavor and provide relatively high protein. Insects can be grown with a better feed conversion ratio, about 3:1, than most other sources of protein.

Premier foods made from edible species such as Nostoc form small odorless, tasteless balls that appear similar to caviar. These might be processed with pigments and taste to imitate caviar. The low price point could make this form of caviar very attractive for consumers. A host of other premium foods such as truffles, saffron or foiegras could also become popular.

Low Calorie, High Nutrient Algae Foods

Gourmet algae foods will also develop. Restaurants will differentiate themselves by serving gourmet algae-based foods. Popular cooking magazines will showcase algae foods on their covers and give prizes for best recipes and food innovations. Hybrid gourmet and health magazines such as Cooking Light will be the big winners because they can showcase phenomenal foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and calories but high on visual impact, aroma, nutrition, texture and taste.

The value proposition for algae foods will include organically grown, price, taste, texture, aroma, sustainability, ecological benefits and health. Institutional foods such as meals for schools, institutions, prisons, businesses and cafeterias will be able to provide healthier foods that taste better, offer better nutrition, have higher protein and less fat at a substantial price reduction over traditional foods.