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When it comes to the health and future of our planet, things can look dark and uncertain. The problem is that our global population is booming, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. And obviously, we all need to eat, but the earth only has so many renewable resources.
So we’re faced with the problem of trying to provide the proper nutrition for everyone, but the way that we’re currently eating is unsustainable on such a large scale.
The bottom line is that if we don’t change how we produce and consume our food, we’re in for a lot of trouble.
But there is hope: by changing the way we eat and the products we use, we’re doing our part to minimize the devastating effects of climate change. And one of the most surprising ways that we can do that is by utilizing algae.
Yes, that green scum that you see floating on top of bodies of water may actually be the answer to climate change and responsible, nutritious food growth. Here’s why algae could be a key player in the future of sustainable foods.
What Is Algae?
The term “algae” actually encompasses a wide range of organisms. The common threads are that algae are photosynthetic, meaning they can produce their energy from sunlight like plants. But unlike plants, they don’t have any roots or stems, and they take in their nutrients from the water, not soil.
Algae is typically found in lakes, oceans, and other bodies of water. They can range from the green scum that you see sitting on the surface of pond water to large seaweed you find floating in the ocean.
There are two different kinds of algae: microalgae and macroalgae.
Microalgae are tiny photosynthetic organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye. These are simple and single-celled but can “bloom” and become visible in large numbers, like the case with blue-green algae that you can sometimes see sitting on pond surfaces.
Macroalgae are photosynthetic plants that you might know from their more common name, seaweed. As opposed to microalgae, macroalgae are made of multiple cells and look more similar to plants.
So while both micro- and macro-algae are a part of the same category, they can look very different and be used in very different ways. Put together, both kinds of algae might change the way that we see food on a global scale.
How We’re Using Algae Now
It might sound like an unusual ingredient to include in your regular meal plan, but there’s a high chance that you have already consumed algae-based foods in some form.
Algae has cemented itself as a dietary staple throughout history. For example, the Aztecs harvested the blue-green algae spirulina to make cakes, and people in Chad have included it in their daily diet for centuries.
But algae isn’t just an exotic source of food from ancient cultures. In fact, algae have a couple of common uses in the current food industry and are becoming increasingly popular. You can even find algae in various forms at your local health food stores!
For example, algae-based food includes:
- Edible seaweed, like those used in sushi and nori
- Spirulina, a popular ingredient for adding vitamins and minerals to green smoothies
- Omega-3 capsules that use algae oil instead of fatty fish oil
- Specialty algae chips
Because algae have properties that can change the texture and structure of foods, they’re also used as a thickener in various foods and supplements. You can find algae added to meat and cereal products, and they even play a role in fermenting dairy products like milk and cheese. Finally, algae are also used as an additive to improve the quality of animal feeds.
So algae have already been quietly playing a role in many of the foods that we already eat. But here’s what’s really exciting: when you look at the big picture and go beyond these common uses, the benefits of algae could mean that it becomes much more than the latest “superfood” trend in the future.
Why Algae Is The Future Of Food
So how is algae the answer for feeding our global citizens while combatting global warming?
It’s simple: our population continues to grow, which means that our demand for nutritious food increases. Algae is quick-growing, has a smaller carbon footprint than many other crops, and has the right kind of nutrition profile to make a difference for a variety of eaters.
Algae is surprisingly nutritious for such an unassuming, easy-to-grow organism:
- Certain microalgae like chlorella and spirulina have a high protein content for their weight. They’re such a good plant-based protein source that they’re even used in protein powders, bars, and other supplements.
- Microalgae are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. They are a primary producer of the two omega-3s DHA and EPA, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties and can be beneficial for the health of your heart, brain, and skin.*
- Algae is also considered a “functional” food because of its rich store of phytonutrients, or plant-based nutrients that act as antioxidants. Eating a diet rich in phytonutrients is beneficial for improving your immune system, preventing disease, and even delaying the aging process!*
So algae, especially microalgae like spirulina and chlorella, may play a really promising role in the future of food. Producing and consuming more algae-based foods can help close the nutrition gap and provide a valuable source of protein for more people, all while reducing the impact of our food needs on the environment. It’s great news for anyone looking to minimize their animal-based foods and products.
And the best part is that algae can be cultivated on a large scale to help minimize the huge food disparities around the globe and fight off malnutrition.
For example, consider the work done by The Swiss Antenna Foundation in Tamil Nadu, India. This foundation locally cultivates spirulina, a nutritious blue-green microalgae, to be used as a supplement for children suffering from malnutrition. Just one daily dose of 1-3 grams of spirulina a day for four to six weeks can improve those children’s health and well-being.
The foundation also provides training to the local people so that they can continue to produce spirulina and encourage local sustainability. If one foundation can make such a significant impact on one community, imagine how far algae can go worldwide in combatting malnutrition and staving off environmental damage!
Algae, Climate Change, And Hope
The benefits of using algae go far beyond personal nutrition. Growing and using more algae for food could be part of the solution to saving our planet.
The current statistics on climate change are grim, and our current eating patterns are a significant contributor. The world’s population is continuing to rise, and we have to feed ourselves somehow. Depending on animal agriculture means using a staggering amount of natural resources that contribute to the decline of the earth’s health and the continuing progression into climate disaster.
According to a special report written by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), making a global, collective switch to plant-based diets by 2050 would help stop deforestation, saving several million kilometers of land, and reduce carbon dioxide by a whopping eight million tons a year!
So changing our eating habits and making the switch to more plant-based foods is one way to seriously contribute to stopping the decline of the earth’s natural resources. And as we look for better answers for growing food sustainably, algae is gaining a lot of attention.
Environmental benefits of algae-based foods include:
Algae can be cultivated and grown in a variety of environments. Not only can algae thrive in both saltwater and freshwater, but they can also be grown indoors or outdoors.
Because we can grow algae in a truly isolated environment, we can prevent further damage to natural ocean habitats. This is especially important when we consider how current industries like fish farming can contribute to ocean damage due to contamination and interruptions of natural marine ecosystems.
Both macroalgae and microalgae grow incredibly quickly, making them an excellent solution for producing a large amount of food necessary for feeding large populations. Microalgae can double in size in as few as 24 hours!
Small carbon footprint
When you put it all together, growing algae is simply less of a burden on the planet than growing other kinds of crops for food while still providing ample nutrition.
For example, let’s compare it with a different plant-based food: soy. Soy is a popular source of protein for people who don’t eat meat. While growing soy may have less of a carbon footprint than animal-based protein, it’s still presenting a huge problem in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation.
Studies have found that algae can capture up to 90% of carbon dioxide emissions, which is a far cry from other methods of growing food that simply emit more carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming!
Huge oxygen contribution
We give a lot of thought to lush rainforests and trees for our oxygen, but algae deserve credit. Algae are responsible for producing up to 80% of the earth’s oxygen!
With all of these promising benefits, it’s no wonder that scientists have begun to seriously study these simple organisms and consider how they can help provide nutrition without compromising the planet’s health. The possibilities are exciting, including potential uses as a protein source and nutritional supplement to combat world hunger and malnutrition.
Final Thoughts On Algae And The Future Of Food
As we look to the future of food, it’s clear that we have to make some big changes on a global scale. There can no longer be any doubt that the earth will be in serious trouble if we don’t change the way we look at food. We need to start expanding our palettes and exploring other unconventional options if we want to have any hope of feeding ourselves without destroying the planet.
Algae has spent a lot of time on the back-burner, but more and more research is concluding that it might be one of the answers that we’re looking for.