Proposed coastal kelp farms as a solution to the future food crisis

A new paper published in the journal Oceanography speculates that future global food production problems could be solved by growing protein-dense microalgae in coastal aquaculture farms. Modeling boldly projects that 100% of global protein requirements could be met by marine microalgae in 2050.

In the next 35 years the world population is projected to reach 10 billion people. Feeding billions more people will require major changes in global food production systems. Charles Greene, from Cornell University’s department of earth and atmospheric sciences, said the world faces challenges from climate change and environmental degradation that limit agricultural production.

“We simply cannot achieve our goals with the way we produce food today and our reliance on land-based agriculture,” Greene said.

The new paper from Greene and colleagues presents a scenario where new land-based aquaculture farms could develop large volumes of microalgae. The paper claims that the environmental footprint of these new farms would reduce deforestation and require no soil or fertilizer.

“We have an opportunity to grow food that is highly nutritious, fast-growing, and we can do it in environments where we’re not competing for other uses,” Greene explained. “And because we grow it in relatively closed and controlled facilities, we don’t have the same kind of environmental impact.”

In addition to predicting global protein yields to effectively feed billions of people, the paper models the best geographic locations for these land-based aquaculture facilities. In terms of suitable land, it is suggested that the optimal locations for these seaweed farms would be on the coasts of northern Australia, eastern Africa and northwestern America.

“Algae can really be the basket case for the Global South,” Greene added. “On this narrow strip of land, we can produce more than all the protein the world will need.”

The paper is obviously wildly speculative and presented primarily as a thought experiment more than a realistic proposition. Perhaps the most pressing hurdle in this kind of proposal is finding ways for people to incorporate algae into their diets. While algae could hypothetically support 10 billion people, the reality is that it would never fully replace other foods. Instead, it could have a variety of other applications in the agricultural industry.

A recent paper by Jules Siedenburg, at the University of East Anglia, suggested several key applications for algae that could significantly reduce current agricultural impacts on the environment. Along with its use as a dietary supplement, Siedenburg said the microalgae could be used to feed animals and serve as a new type of fertilizer for crop production.

“Early studies of microalgae-based biofertilizers and biostimulants suggest they can boost productivity while building crop resilience to climate-related stresses such as high temperatures, water scarcity, and soil salinity,” Siedenburg wrote. in an article for The Conversation. “Treated maize plants, for example, showed more developed roots than untreated plants. This resulted in better drought tolerance.”

Algae is undeniably a high-protein, easy-to-grow crop, and researchers are working on many ways to get it into our diet without forcing us to eat a handful of it in its natural form. Earlier this year, a startup introduced a smoked salmon substitute made entirely from spirulina, a common blue-green algae. Another company a few years ago proposed an engineered form of algae designed to taste like bacon. Maybe bacon flavored seaweed is the solution here?

The new study was published in Oceanography.

Source: Cornell University

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