Kelp me if you can: is algae the answer?

1st December 2020 | Alison Turner

Our population is continuing to grow at a rapid rate, and traditional food production systems are already overstretched, as are the Earth’s resources. A new solution is needed, one that can feed an increasingly hungry planet both efficiently and sustainably. And the answer could come in an unexpected form: algae.

To the untrained eye, algae might look a little creepy, but you should dismiss any thoughts of insidious pond scum right now – these oft-overlooked aquatic organisms are actually loaded with nutrients. Add to this the fact that they can grow in places that other crops can’t, and what you have is a genuine “superfood” that could provide the answer to our planet’s growing food security and environmental issues.

Has Algae, a start-up based in Sydney, is pioneering the use of algae as a crop that can be used to augment our everyday foods, providing valuable nutrition without plundering the planet’s resources. Algae grows around 10 times faster than traditional crops in a fraction of the space, and can be grown in different types of water, including salt water, making it practical to grow in arid conditions – like many parts of Australia.

There are anywhere between 40,000 and two million different types of algae, each with its own nutritional benefits. The type of microalgae that Has Algae is farming in Queensland contains an impressive 40 percent protein, and is also rich in vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids – especially EPA and DHA, which eight in 10 people around the world are deficient in. Vegans and vegetarians are particularly at risk of omega-3 deficiencies, but since algae is vegan-friendly, it’s the perfect addition to a plant-based diet.

Algae is incredibly hardy, and can grow in conditions that other crops cannot.

A big problem to solve

Has Algae co-founder Tim Gardner was inspired to look into algae’s potential as a food source after a backpacking trip through Africa got him thinking about food security.

“You get to see how the other half of the world lives, and how scarce food is,” he says. “Food security is one of the world’s biggest problems. So I thought, how can we solve it?”

Gardner went on to study a Master in Agribusiness at the University of Queensland. While he was co-managing a community garden at the university’s Gatton Campus, he met a fellow student who was to become Has Algae’s co-founder, Brendan Fu.

“We had a few discussions on what we’d do after graduating and what our motivations were, and algae came up,” Gardner says. “it’s the most efficient way to grow nutrition – it doubles in size every other day. Compared to traditional crops that take months to grow, our algae can be harvested every three days.”

Algae pasta: making a staple food even better for you.

Just add algae

Has Algae is now exploring how everyday foods such as pasta, bread, sauces, protein balls, yoghurt and even ice cream can be made with algae.

“That’s why we call ourselves Has Algae, because it’ll be like, this bread has algae; this pasta has algae,” Gardner says. “It’s adaptable to so many things. It’s almost a no brainer, really. I don’t know why it’s not a lot more mainstream.”

Gardner has also worked with Aussie chefs, such as Chef Daniel, to add algae to their menus, and collaborates closely with the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Queensland, which both have research programs looking into the potential role that algae can play in food and energy security. Has Algae has also garnered interest from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the business was named a winner in the FoodTech Challenge, a UAE government-led competition to identify the world’s best agtech solutions that can help the UAE produce 60 percent more food by 2051 and halve food waste by 2030.

Algae could help do more than just feed the world, it could fuel it, too.

Bucking the system

While algae’s benefits are indisputable – as well as being a highly sustainable, cost-efficient and nutritious food, research has found that it can lower cholesterol and inflammation and may help to prevent Alzheimer’s – there’s still the question: is the world ready for algae?

“It’s polarising,” Gardner admits. “You’ll either hate it, or you’re willing to try it.”

“At the moment, there’s a massive push with plant-based proteins. But if we’re going to go plant-based and have Impossible Burgers, and switch to soy-based protein, which they’re based on, we’re not going to be able to grow enough soy to meet that demand.”

Global food security is a growing issue that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later. By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion, and the United Nation estimates that more than 800 million people are already going hungry.

“We need new systems,” Gardner says. “We can’t rely on the old systems to solve the problem – we’re pretty much stretched. We’ve got to figure out new ways of doing things, to bring in a whole new food production system. This is where algae is going to fit in.”

The University of Queensland’s algae energy farm in Pinjarra Hills, outside of Brisbane.

Fast facts on algae:

• Algae is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins and vitamin A.

• 75% of the oxygen we breathe is not produced by trees – it’s produced by algae.

• NASA was a driving force behind developing spirulina (a type of algae) as something that could potentially feed astronauts.

• One hectare of algae can produce 50 tonnes of biomass a year.

• Algae are autotrophs – organisms that produce their own nutrients and energy. They do this via photosynthesis.

• Algae has been used to make everything from footwear and clothing dyes to fuel, cosmetics, medicines and biodegradable plastics.

Adding algae to agricultural feed can help to reduce methane emissions from livestock.

• You can buy algae in powdered form to add to smoothies, juices and protein balls. Has Algae sells its Pot of Green in 100g bags.

• Researchers from Oregon State University in the US have patented a new strain of a red marine algae that tastes like bacon when fried. We’d like to try that…

To find out more about Has Algae, head to hasalgae.com