Discussion of algae’s potential as a major source of food rises and falls on a seven to ten-year cycle, Shapiro said in an online forum.
“The issue is scale,” he said. “To date, no one has figured out how to deal with issues such as drying the material efficiently, how to extract the protein and not have it be a green colour (which is not necessarily desirable to many people), the water-use issues, and do we know what the best varieties to grow that offer the most promise for the future of food?”
He added that he was aware of people who were pushing the boundaries but said it was still not financially viable.
“I hope it is one day,” he said.
Algae has varied food and nutrition potential, including as a source of omega 3, beta-glucans and as a source of the food colouring and antioxidant astaxanthin. Algal ingredients can also be used to replace fats in certain products, and are rich in protein, which could be produced with far less water than protein from plants like soy, for example.
The algae discussion was part of a Science AMA Series on the social media site Reddit. AMA stands for ‘ask me anything’ and the science series connects scientists looking to improve understanding of their area of research with forum users.
From discovery to daily diets
Asked about other ways to eat more sustainably, Shapiro said scale was also a challenge for plant-based proteins.
“There will always be a desire for animal protein. What we really need to do is understand how vegetative protein can take the pressure off the production of animal protein.”
He suggested that plants’ protein content could be increased, plants could be made more resilient to particular climate conditions and saline-type soils, and plant-based proteins could satisfy a large portion of the population with textures, flavours and attributes that mimic animal-based protein – but discoveries in these areas needed to be scaled up and financed “to get this to a place where plant-based protein in every region of the world is an integral part of the daily diet”.
“Very little work has been done to date that answers the call for plant-based protein,” he said. “…What is the potential to double or triple the protein and nutrient content of most of these plants with modern plant breeding? We have to imagine it's very high, but this is intentional. We have to make our minds up to be intentional about plant-based protein. That effort is just beginning and it will gain traction very, very quickly.”
He said that Mars was working with researchers on many of these issues, and finding solutions was dependent on collaboration.