Feeding Billions

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Algae: The new green goddess.

By Andrew A. Dahl

By the year 2040, experts predict that 8 billion people will inhabit our planet, creating intense demand for clean water and nutrition at the expense of all living things. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has predicted a 60 percent increase in protein demand over the next 30 years while the ability to produce that protein appears to increase only 40 percent. That’s a huge shortfall that needs to be met with a nutritional source that doesn’t add to fossil fuel, fertilizer or pesticide use or place excessive demands on freshwater consumption.

Scientists, academia, governments and industry have been investigating protein alternatives, ranging from ground-up insects to pulverized mushrooms to plant-based meat substitutes and lab-grown protein. Most soak up more energy than they provide in the form of consumable protein and carbohydrates – a negative energy gradient. In other words, the electricity, fossil fuel use and labor in calories associated with creating these protein alternatives exceed the caloric content in the food product.

Where to turn for something that approaches a positive energy gradient? Our sun bombards the Earth with solar energy, and plants have evolved to capture this energy. Humans have cultivated plants for centuries, effectively capturing and consuming the sun’s energy. But as human population expands and subsistence farming gives way to mechanized agriculture, food production has become reliant on fossil fuel and fertilizers to increase yield from rapidly shrinking farmland.

In effect, we’re “mining” solar energy from previous millennia trapped in the ground as fossil fuel and introducing it into our closed system as we grow our food, heat our homes and drive to work. The climatological effect of this borrowed energy use and resulting emissions can be debated, but the reality of an agricultural system heavily reliant on fossil fuel and mechanization is indisputable.

Plant-Based Protein

Global demand for plant protein is growing with many people turning to plant-based diets. Soy dominates the plant protein market but there are concerns about GMO and estrogen-mirroring compounds. Other plant-based proteins, including quinoa, pea, rice, bean and potato are getting more shelf-space. All of these plant-based proteins require agricultural support and use water, land and energy resources.

Enter algae-based protein, which can be cultivated cost-efficiently and is non-taxing to the agricultural system. An algae cultivation model favored by Zivo Bioscience eschews complex and costly fermentation systems, photo-bioreactors, panels and tubes associated with microalgae production in favor of the most basic and cost-efficient models: a covered, shallow pond constructed of inexpensive, readily-available materials obtainable in many parts of the world.

The ideal algal strain flourishes in the simplest of production environments at the lowest possible cost without a necessary dependence on fossil fuels to maintain high yields – an affordable approach that can be practiced most anywhere. Under ideal conditions, a fast-growing alga, including the ZIVO strain, may produce up to five times the amount of protein as soybean using about 33 percent of the water consumed in growing soybean, according to industry sources.

Evaporation rates can vary according to local climates and cultivation pond size, but the larger point is that water consumption is dramatically lower than for soybean cultivation and the water can be recycled three to four times. Optimized phototrophic microalgae are uniquely suitable for sustainable cultivation as they efficiently capture solar energy. The energy efficiency (food energy output/kg/energy input/kg) is five times higher than soy, twice that of corn and more than 100 times higher than grain-fed beef, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Yield per acre is equally important.

Under ideal conditions, the same amount of land used for growing corn could produce up to 25 times more protein from microalgae in part due to continuous harvest year-round and significantly higher protein content found in microalgae

Overcoming Hurdles

Right now, algae-based protein faces a classic chicken and egg situation – major food companies won’t introduce algal ingredients into products because there is no reliable production that can produce agricultural-scale algae in high volumes at low prices. And, no producer is willing to start up production without solid market demand. And so, algae cultivation remains more of a curiosity than a mainstream crop.

Today’s algae-based products run the gamut from high-value pharmaceutical ingredients to plant protein. Since costs to produce algae as a human food protein are still high, scaling algae as a feedstock for high-value applications is an important first step in ensuring capital expenditures are amortized and operating efficiencies squeeze cost out of production and processing.

A vital step in developing algae as a leading plant protein source is overcoming government hurdles. Right now, only three states in the United States classify algae as a crop, keeping potential producers from access to government-sponsored and sanctioned agriculture-based financing, tax breaks, technical support and import/export infrastructure. It’s time for our country to establish governmental cGAP (current Good Agricultural Practices) standards which include regulatory guidance and product quality benchmarks to ensure food industry adoption.

Andrew A. Dahl is president and CEO of Zivo Bioscience, which is dedicated to the development and commercialization of nutritional compounds and bioactive molecules derived from proprietary algal strains. For more information visit www.zivobioscience.com.


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