More than 40 years ago, American scientist Stephen Mayfield began studying the potential for widespread use of algae as food for millions of people. Now, says Mayfield, director of the Center for Algal Biotechnology at the University of California, San Diego, the best and simplest solution to the current and future global food crisis is to eat these organisms.
And the research team led by Mayfield confirms, in a study published in the journal “Frontier”, that microalgae could be the future of sustainable “superfoods” in a rapidly changing world.
A superfood is defined as a food rich in beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants, fiber or fatty acids, which are beneficial to human health. This type of food provides high levels of desirable nutrients associated with promoting personal health and well-being or preventing disease, characteristics found “in abundance” in seaweed, Mayfield said. in statements to Al Sharq.
And in 2022, a UN report presented shocking facts about food insecurity. This report indicates that more than 828 million people were going hungry in 2021, an increase of 46 million people compared to 2021. This increase is expected to continue in the coming years due to the strong pressures on production practices. agriculture and food, imposed by climate change and the exponential growth of the planet’s population.
For thousands of years, both macroalgal (seaweed and kelp) and micro (single-celled) forms of algae have been cultivated as a food source. Algae have evolved to be very resource efficient and have proven to be a vital source of nutritious biomass that can solve many of today’s food production problems.
A more efficient food source
In the new study, the researchers identify a series of environmental and nutritional benefits of seaweed, as well as the technical and economic challenges of increasing production. They say seaweed could be a new type of superfood thanks to its content high in protein and nutrients.
Although seaweed has long been studied as a biofuel source thanks to its higher lipid content, it is also attracting research interest because of its potential to be a more efficient food source.
For example, a 2014 study cited by Mayfield in the current article found that algae can produce 167 times more beneficial biomass than corn per year while using the same amount of land.
Other models predict that current algae strains could replace 25% of European protein consumption and 50% of total vegetable oil consumption when grown on available land not currently used for conventional crops.
The biggest advantage
Here, the “biggest advantage” of these organisms is the production of protein produced per acre. “Algae simply eclipses the current gold standard for soybeans by at least 10 times, maybe 20 times, more protein production per acre.”
Additionally, some types of algae can be grown in brackish or brackish water, and sometimes in sewage, which means fresh water can be saved for other needs.
Nutritionally, many seaweed species are rich in vitamins and minerals, especially macronutrients essential to the human diet, such as amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids.
Mayfield added in his statements to Al-Sharq that the world needs new, more productive food sources, especially protein and essential fatty acids, “seaweed just provides that opportunity.”
However, many challenges remain, starting with finding or developing algal strains that meet all the criteria, such as high biomass productivity, high protein content and the most efficient growth conditions in terms of land use, water requirements and nutrient inputs.
In the article, Mayfield and his team describe the range of different scientific tools available to produce the most desirable characteristics of a commercially viable seaweed product.
For example, a previously published experiment described enhancing astaxanthin, an antioxidant pigment that has been shown to have various health benefits, by effecting genetic mutations in specific types of algae.
In another experiment, researchers obtained an increase in biomass yield and protein content from a different strain of algae, particularly when grown in simple, inexpensive sweet corn juice.
Thus, the commercial use of an algal culture must involve a combination of conventional breeding and molecular engineering. And that’s how modern cultures are developed, that’s how algae is going to be developed. “Both are plants, one terrestrial and the other aquatic,” explains Mayfield.
Nutrition and yield are not the only considerations, some color and taste adjustments and the reduction of that distinctive fishy odor may be necessary to appeal to some consumers.
Other experiments have already shown the ability to modify these sensory traits while increasing the protein content of new strains of algae.
The researchers say the biggest challenge to business development isn’t necessarily scientific, technical or aesthetic. It is the ability to expand production globally.
But the need for alternative food systems becomes more pressing as populations grow, pushing resources and systems to breaking point.
Mayfield indicated in his statements to “Al Sharq” that the benefits of seaweed consumption go beyond human health to “the health of the planet”. Because algae as food will reduce the need to cut down rainforests or use drinking water to produce additional food.
There is no risk in consuming this type of seaweed, says Mayfield, who points out that “it has been consumed for centuries in different cultures”.
As for the cost of a seaweed meal, Mayfield admits it costs more today than soy protein for the same number of calories, “but as production increases, that cost will come down quickly. and algae will eventually become the cheapest food available, as it is much more productive than regular crops, such as soybeans, corn or rice.” “.
“We have known for decades that seaweed grows much faster than traditional food crops, and over the past 10 years we have demonstrated that seaweed produces a highly nutritious food, high in protein, essential minerals, acids fat and vitamins,” Mayfield said. new, more effective foods for the 8 billion mouths of the planet.
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