Algae to the rescue: soon we’ll wonder how we did without it
Versatile sea plants emerge as a sustainable super-ingredient in face creams, pharmaceuticals, foods and more
You know what there’s really plenty of in the sea? Algae. And I am in love with them. Most people envision algae as slimy, possibly toxic, green scum. But this diverse group of fast-growing aquatic plants is about to undergo an image makeover, and may soon seem flat-out glamorous.
Algae got a lot of excited press a few years ago as a potential biofuel, but they’re turning out to be a sustainable super-ingredient with transformative potential in several massive industries: fish and other animal feeds, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, bioplastics and fertilizers. They’re also gaining favor as a vegetarian seafood. In all, the market for algae products could reach nearly $45 billion by 2023, according to a 2016 Credence Research market analysis.
Micro versus macro: size is a quick guide to what algae can do
Algae’s broad utility stems partly from their abundant variety. Algae fall into two broad categories: microalgae and macroalgae. Microalgae are single-cell organisms, such as chlorella and spirulina, grown mostly in controlled industrial facilities. They’re high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which makes them an ideal alternative to increasingly scarce and expensive fish oil — a primary ingredient in feeds. Microalgae also are essential to reinvigorating the shellfish industry. In many oyster-farming areas, for example, the ocean environment no longer provides the algae that oysters need to grow.
Macroalgae are larger aquatic plants, such as seaweed and kelp, that grow in the ocean. They’re an artisanal ingredient in high-value products including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and foods, and they’re relatively easy to grow in coastal areas. This makes them great economic development tools for fishing communities in the global south: algae farming can boost household incomes and provide work for fishers when the weather is too poor for fishing or quotas are exhausted.
Entrepreneurs address the full range of algae’s potential
I was excited to see the number and diversity of algae-focused businesses applying to this year’s Fish 2.0 workshops and competition, all with triple-bottom-line impact at their core. Some ventures are growing microalgae as feed for shellfish or an ingredient in fish feeds. Others are growing algae to create needed jobs, especially for women in coastal communities. Some sell the algae they harvest to pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies; others sell to food companies. And entrepreneurs increasingly are processing the algae themselves to make seaweed snacks, garnishes and products for the natural foods sector and the Japanese restaurant market — a trend that increases the value communities can capture from their algae products, as well as communities’ interest in starting such enterprises.
One example of algae entrepreneurship is Lili Kawaguchi, who won over the room with her pitch at Fish 2.0’s Pacific Islands business development workshop. Her business, South Pacific Mozuku, provides seaweed for high-end cosmetics. Growing the seaweed off the Tonga coast allows the company to develop local stewardship of coastal and marine habitats, so as the business grows, both the people and the reefs of Tonga benefit.
Salty, crunchy … and good for you?
I wondered just recently if lionfish would be the new kale. It’s also possible that seaweed snacks will be the new potato chips. While similarly salty and crunchy in its dried and roasted form, seaweed is certainly more nutritious: many varieties are loaded with nutrients, fiber, protein and iodine. U.S. retail sales of seaweed snacks grew about 30 percent in 2014, reaching more than $250 million, and launches in the category have surged in the past two years. In a creative twist, one company is using algae to create faux shrimp.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are studying algae-based products for use in combatting colds, flu, tumors, AIDS, Alzheimer’s and a range of other conditions. And the cosmetics industry is finding that algae can have anti-acne, anti-aging, and other beneficial effects.
Algae’s uses are so varied it’s difficult to know where to focus. Fish 2.0’s one-page Investment Insights overview of the algae market offers investors and entrepreneurs an understanding of the opportunities and industry basics. With algae businesses, we have a real opportunity to preserve ocean habitats and enable coastal communities to thrive — while producing natural solutions for disease control, nutrition and skin care.
A version of this article originally appeared on the National Geographic blog.