Sustainability Labels for Algae Foods

The FDA announced in July 2013 new label regulations for ‘‘gluten free’’ foods. The FDA, USDA and EPA have talked about environmental and sustainability issues associated with foods, but have published no label guidelines. There are guidelines for food safety but without traceability, those recommendations are not useful.

What if the FDA proposed sustainability labels for algae-based foods? Since the FDA has been extremely slow at examining algae-based foods, it might be helpful to propose a label. How might sustainable labels brand algae-based foods?

Food choices

Today most people make food choices based on the limited nutritional information on food labels. The Mayo Clinic posted the highly educational food label from the Department of Health and Human Services.

American Hearth AssociationThis example label, posted by the American Heart Association is typical for modern foods. Current food labels convey only a tiny bit of information for two reasons:

  1. Most Food packages are small.
  2. Adding to standard food labels takes many years of consensus building.

New iPhone and Android apps will allow consumers to scan the UPC (or RF) code and go to a site that gives deep information about the food, including its sustainability.

Quick response codes

Quick response (QR) codes offer a method for communicating sustainability dimensions. Sushi restaurants in the UK and America to verify sushi quality and source have used QR code technology. In 2012, Moshi Moshi, founded by Caroline Bennett, was the first to trial QR sushi, partnering with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a seafood watch organization. To celebrate its 10,000th MSC-certified dish, Moshi Moshi posted its certified sustainable seafood story in a digital format.

The QR code was printed on rice paper and nori, edible seaweed using squid ink. The rice paper was placed on top of the fish. When a customer scanned it with a smartphone, they were directed to a website explaining where the fish was sourced.

Stickers can be displayed on food packaging, highlighting that the meat within is 100% range beef or free range chicken. QR codes do not guarantee that the food product has been ethically sourced or that the supply chain is sustainable.

Quick Response (QR) Codes

Quick Response (QR) Codes

From cantaloupe, to chickens, to canned goods there have been many discussions about traceability. Every outbreak of listeria, salmonella and product recall sparks new debate over food safety. Consumers want food and beverage manufacturers to improve visibility into their supply chains to allow consumer-tracking food from farm to fork.

Current sustainable food labels

Labels used today typically convey organic, local or other green attributes. Unfortunately, current certifications and labels are not clear about what they mean. For example, many NGO’s are suing companies over false claims for organic production. One of the largest organic hay producers has been found guilty of producing hay with industrial farming methods and ignoring organic requirements. Even USDA certified organic produce may have certain levels of pesticides and other agriculture chemicals.

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and utilizes management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. “Organic” is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the USDA’s Organic Rule. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use “materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”

Resources for organic food products, include:

  • Organic Trade Association:
  • Organic Farming Research Association:
  • USDA’s national organic program:

Organic crops should be grown in safe soil, have no modifications, and must remain separate from conventional products. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Current sustainable food labels

Current sustainable food labels

Transitional produce have been grown under conditions that meet organic growing standards but lack either the required length of time for the land to be free of chemical usage (36 months) or the process for proper certification has not yet been completed. The commitment to switching from conventional farming to organic methods is difficult and costly. Production is often limited until the soil can rebuild the organic matter needed to compensate for the lack of synthetic fertilizers, which may take years. The “transitional” label allows consumers to support farmers who are moving toward organic certification.

Modern industrial foods

This sustainability label is proposed for demonstration purposes. When the scientific and nutritional community agrees on sustainability dimensions, a label similar to this might be scored in two ways:

  1. Scientists, nutritionists and producers create a consensus score for each product.
  2. Consumers, environmentalists and foodies respond to a survey to create a score for each product. Yelp offers a model for scoring taste, nutrition and sustainability.

This green label will need to be summarized to create a simple to understand index. An index based on 100 points for each taste, nutrition and sustainability would serve these new foods. This model uses a 1 to 10-point scale where 10 represents the most sustainable food.

Sustainability Factor

Algae-based foods


Resource depletion


Algae can be grown with net-zero cropland. Growers can grow algae in algae microfarms sited in deserts, mountains, rock piles, lakes, estuaries or urban areas including rooftops, balconies, parking lots and waste dumps.

Cropland = 10

Fresh-waterFresh water

Algae require net-zero freshwater. These organisms grow productively in waste, brine or ocean water. Algae production can sanitize water, while producing valuable compounds. Some algae producers today use fresh water but use about 90% less fresh water than field crops such as food grains.

Fresh water = 10

Fossil-fuelsFossil fuels

Algae do not require fossil fuels for effective production. The processes of moving water, mixing cultures, harvesting and compound extraction require far less energy than field crops. Sufficient energy can be provided by wind, waves, solar or geothermal.

Fossil fuels = 10

Macro-fertilizersMacro fertilizers

Algae can reclaim macro fertilizers, NPK, from waste, brine or ocean water. Not all water sources contain the full set of nutrients but waste streams can supply 90% of the macronutrients. One company uses brine water for nine algae crops before the essential nutrients are depleted. About 50% of the water stored on earth is brine water.

Macro fertilizers = 10

MicronutrientsMicronutrients Algae can recover and recycle micronutrients such as iron, manganese, boron, copper, molybdenum, nickel, chlorine and zinc from non-freshwater sources. Waste streams and brine water hold rich stores of micronutrients that are currently wasted and pollute ecosystems.

Micro-nutrients = 10

Waste and pollution


Algae production reverses the waste that is a hallmark of industrial agriculture. Algae producers can recover valuable nutrients while cleaning waste streams of both nutrients and organic wastes.

Waste = 10

Air-pollutionAir pollution

Algae production reverses air pollutions. Algae growers often site algae production systems near CO2 or methane sources and sequester the gases. Each ton of algae sequesters nearly two tons of CO2. Algae can also clean the air of black soot particulates. The only gas algae emit to the atmosphere is pure oxygen.

Air pollution = 10

Water-pollutionWater pollution

Algae reverse the water pollution common with industrial agriculture. Algae producers remediate polluted water while producing green biomass that contains valuable compounds.

Water pollution = 10

Soil-degradationSoil degradation

Algae grow in water and use no soil. Algae biofertilizers can reverse the soil degradation common in industrial agriculture. Algae producers using Smartcultures can recover nutrients in waste streams and recycle them to field crops. Algae continue to grow in the field while moisture is present, adding organic matter, humus, to the soil and enhancing fertility.

Soil degradation = 10



Algae growers can grow algae productively without the use of agricultural chemicals and poisons. USDA tests show nearly all commercial produce contain pesticide residue. Algae food products have no poison residues because no poisons were used in production.

Pesticides = 10


Algae grow effectively without herbicides. Therefore, no herbicide residue shows up in algae foods and no plant poisons pollute neighboring ecosystems.

Herbicides = 10


Scientists estimate that there are over 10 million species of algae. Therefore, desirable compounds can be found in naturally occurring cultivars, making GMOs unnecessary. Algae can be “trained” through management of light, pH or nutrients to expand production of desirable products like omega-3 fatty acids.

GMO = 10


Over 92% of corn and soy planted in the U.S. are GMO monocrops. Algae offer so many species; there is no need for monocrops.

Monocrops = 10

Salt-invasionSalt invasion

Salt kills field crops. The large salt ions clog up roots, preventing plants from drawing water and circulating nutrients. Algae have no roots and thrive in salty, brine water. Some algae pull salt from water but, of course, the salt remains in the algae biomass.

Salt invasion = 10


Algae production promotes natural biodiversity by cleaning air, water and soil. Algae producers may choose from a large selection of algae species and may grow several species together. Algae naturally attract other microorganisms, creating a naturally biodiverse community in the algae culture.

Biodiversity = 10

Supply-chainSupply chain

Local algae production uses plentiful local resources, sunshine, CO2 and wastewater, to produce high value products. Nothing in the supply chain needs to travel long distances. Many algae producers grow algae for local consumption. Some restaurants grow algae on the roof and serve spirulina or other algae foods at the dining tables.

Supply chain = 10

Ecological-diversityEcological diversity

Algae production upgrades the local ecology, benefiting natural biodiversity. Algae production can clean air, water and return fertility to degraded soil, which attracts a healthy crop of microorganism. By restoring the base of the food chain, algae enhance ecological diversity by increasing the ecological carrying capacity.

Ecological diversity = 10

Economics and social


Industrial food product costs are masked by substantial farm subsidies for crops, water, and in some cases power. In addition, farmers pay nothing for extracting all the non-renewable resources consumed with each crop. When all the subsidies and externalities are factored in, the total economic costs for algae foods are less than modern commercial food products.

Economics = 10


Algae produce food with 30 to 72 times more productivity per acre than terrestrial crops. Food grains provide a single harvest per year while half of algae’s biomass may be harvested daily. For some compounds, algae secrete the molecules that can be skimmed from the top of the culture without disturbing the existing culture.

Productivity = 10

Global-warmingGlobal warming

Global warming – heat, drought, fierce storms, wildfires and floods can decimate field crops. In covered or closed systems, algae can produce reliably all year round. Growers may use LED lights to extend production in northern climates or areas with many cloudy days.

Global warming = 10

_Production-riskProduction risk

Algae producers can harvest half the biomass daily, reducing production risk to near zero. If a culture becomes contaminated, production can restart in a few days or weeks. Algae are not threatened by the substantial weather risk associated with commercial field crops.

Production risk = 10

_Production-timeProduction time

Field crops take a full growing season, about 150 days. Truck crops, such as lettuce, mature in about half the time. Algae can double its biomass daily, creating a single day production time.

Production time = 10


Algae growers can grow crops locally, enabling fresh consumption. Many spirulina growers sell about 60% of their production fresh locally and make the rest into algae noodles that have a two-year shelf life. Some restaurants grow both their own herbs and algae on site.

Local = 10


Algae production provides substantial social benefits such as good local jobs. Growers improve the local ecology by cleaning air and water. Some growers supply algae biofertilizers that enhance the nutrition, yields and quality of urban gardens and farms. Algae growers create regional ecological benefits and support regional economies. Algae growers benefit the shared environment and the health of neighbors. It promotes fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

Social = 10