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Could Algae Farms be the Future of Food?

In news that would make Ronald McDonald turn in his grave (were he to have been real and not fictional, that is), there are plans afoot to feed the world with marine algae.

Algae farm
Credit: Charles H. Greene | Cornell University

Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s a genuine consideration. A new study says that cultivating marine algae on land-based farms could meet future nutritional demands from society and enhance environmental sustainability, according to a new study by researchers at Cornell University, published in Oceanography.

In fact, the proposed development may exceed the 56 percent increase in food production needed to feed the 10 billion humans projected to be on the planet by 2050. (As a quick aside, did you know that Earth is just about to tick past 8 billion inhabitants? You can see how the numbers roll relentlessly upwards on this real-time calculator.)

So, in short, protein-rich microalgae could be the answer to food insecurity. The algae would be grown in aquaculture systems that are fed on seawater, but kept on land.

The researchers say that climate change, a shortage of arable land, a lack of fresh water, and environmental degradation will all limit the amount of food that can be cultivated in the future decades – and that this might be the answer. Furthermore, they calculate that strategically located algae farms could increase global food production by 56 percent using just one-tenth of cropland - and that algae farms could therefore be the future breadbasket of the Global South.

The researchers also noted that in addition to algae containing high levels of proteins, they also possessed nutrients absent in vegetarian diets. These included omega-3 fatty acids frequently found in fish and seafood, as well as critical amino acids and minerals found in meat.

In further positive news, marine algae-based farms are also “carbon-eating” and have the potential to be carbon negative. And, algae can be generated in a way that uses nutrients more effectively than agriculture does, growing ten times quicker than conventional crops.

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