Food innovators welcome EC’s ‘pioneering’ algae plan

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Justin Lewis
Image: Getty/Justin Lewis

Related tags Algae microalgae Seaweed

Food innovation champions have applauded a new initiative from the European Commission aiming to unlock the potential of algae in the European Union.

According to the Commission, a growing global population, environmental pressures, climate change and the depletion of resources -- exacerbated by  the war in Ukraine which has limited the availability of fertilisers, animal feed ingredients and energy -- all require a different approach to be taken to the food systems.

The EU Algae Initiative aims to help by making wider use of the vast and too little used resource that is the seas and the oceans – currently the source of only up to 2% of human food, despite covering over 70% of the Earth's surface.

The Commission hopes that stronger EU algae farming and processing sectors can respond to demand in a wide range of industries, starting with food, animal feed or bio-based plastic to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals or biofuels.

Despite the many possible applications algae can offer, the seaweed industry in Europe is still very much at an embryonic stage, mainly focused on the harvesting of seaweed from the wild rather than cultivation in aquaculture. With the EU Algae Initiative, the Commission wants to unlock the potential of the EU algae sector, supporting the development of upscaled regenerative algae cultivation and production.

The Commission has identified over 20 ways to improve the business environment and increase acceptance of algae products among consumers to fully harness its potential for food, feed and fertiliser. These include identifying optimal sites for seaweed farming and developing standards for algae ingredients.

As well as its potential to be used in a wide variety of markets, the farming of macroalgae can help regenerate the ocean and seas by removing nutrients that cause eutrophication. It has a low carbon and environmental footprint and a promising potential for carbon sequestration. Microalgae production can also be done on land and far from the sea. They are source of carbon compounds and have applications in wastewater treatment and atmospheric CO2 mitigation.

It's hoped a stronger European algae sector would thus support the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy as the Commission aims to transit to more sustainable food systems and a more circular economy.

“Stronger EU algae farming and processing sectors can respond to demand in a wide range of industries, starting with food, animal feed or bio-based plastic to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals or biofuels. Algae biomass can serve as an alternative to raw materials that now are usually fossil-fuel-based, which is very much in line with the European Green Deal's decarbonisation ambition,” ​said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. “With this initiative we approach the EU algae sector in such a holistic way as never before.”

The plans could accelerate the development of animal-free seafood, helping to tackle overfishing and reduce the bloc’s reliance on imports (the EU is one of the biggest importers of seaweed products globally, and the demand is expected to reach €9 billion in 2030, especially in food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and energy production). The strategy, for example, follows recognition by the European Commission, in its 2020 Blue Bioeconomy Report, of cultivated seafood’s potential to meet rising demand for protein while alleviating pressure on fisheries. The same report also recognised that a lack of research funding in this area remains one of the biggest obstacles to its success in Europe.

How much funding would be needed to get the algae sector off the ground in Europe?

The EU financial support to the algae sector is ‘expected to only grow’, according to the Commission, which said it will continue to look into opportunities for algae-related actions funding.

Its financial support to the algae sector is not new, for example. At least 300 algae-related projects have been supported so far. Together with the European Investment Fund, the Commission has created a large-scale Equity Fund “InvestEU Blue Economy” that will mobilise €500 million of EU funds between 2021-2027. It says this will create up to €1.5 billion of risk-finance for innovative and sustainable blue economy SMEs and start-ups. Further funding has been earmarked under the Horizon Europe programme and the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF).

The important role of algae

EIT Food, Europe's leading food innovation initiative, welcomed the news, calling it ‘an important step forward towards a more sustainable food system in Europe’. EIT Food recognises sustainable aquaculture as a key focus area for innovation, and within that the important role of algae.

Micro- and macroalgae could provide a solution to sustainably feed our growing global population and simultaneously contribute to the decarbonisation of the food system, it believes. Their production does not require arable land and can provide a source of food, feed and biomass for other sectors, hence reducing the pressure on land use. According to EIT Food, algae are also a very promising candidate component in future diets, providing a source of healthy and sustainable proteins as well as a range of other nutritional properties.

“Innovation will help us bring new algae-based solutions to the market,”​ said Dr Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food. “However, to reap their full potential, we need to ensure continuous support throughout to the whole innovation journey, from closing knowledge, technological and skill gaps by leveraging R&I as well as education, to providing support to build a stronger industrial ecosystem, all the way to fostering consumer awareness – a key part of the innovation process.”

EIT Food is already actively supporting start-ups  in the sector, such as for Aliga Microalgae, which developed a white and neutral-flavoured variety of chlorella to enable its use for human consumption, and Solmeyea, developing an innovative system for low-cost vertical cultivation of microalgae with a low carbon footprint.

EIT Food particularly welcomes the planned EU and regional campaigns promoting the variety of applications and benefits of algae-based products. Research by EIT Food’s Citizen Participation Forum has already highlighted those gaps that it says must be addressed in consumer perception of algae: not only are consumers largely unaware of the nutritional and environmental benefits of algae, but they are also sceptical about their taste prior to their first try. To ensure consumer acceptance of algae, it said, “we need to increase awareness of their benefits, while exposing consumers to more algae-based options and leveraging innovation to improve their sensory properties”.

The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit promoting plant-based, fermentation-based, and cell-cultured meat and dairy alternatives, is another group to applaud the algae initiative. GFI also notes that algae is capable of growing faster, being harvested more regularly and using fewer resources than land-based crops. In addition, GFI said algae it can be used to enhance the flavour, texture and nutritional value of plant-based and cultivated seafood – helping deliver some of the 24kg of seafood eaten per EU citizen each year.

In the strategy, the Commission pledges to: “Support, through Horizon Europe and other EU research programmes, the development of new and improved algae processing systems and novel production methods for high-value compounds traditionally sourced from algae (e.g. biorefineries, precision fermentation, cell-free systems), processing algae to make circular bio-based products for multiple applications”.

“Together with Member States, support, through Horizon Europe and other EU research programmes, the development of better and scalable algae cultivation systems (e.g. integrated multi-tropic aquaculture (IMTA), sea multi-use, offshore cultivation, photobioreactors and algaeponics) or methods (e.g. cellular mariculture and macroalgae in tanks) for dealing with the current technical constraints of macroalgae and microalgae production systems.” 

This very much ties with GFI’s funded research into the use of algae to cultivate sea bass fillets, and to assess whether it can be used to help reduce the production costs of cultivated seafood. 

The GFI is also loudly backing precision fermentation -- another method of producing sustainable proteins, using cells as miniature factories to produce a wide range of ingredients. This method, it said, can be applied to algae in order to produce sustainable omega-3 as an essential ingredient for plant-based and cultivated seafood. 

Elena Walden, senior policy manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “It’s great to see the European Commission supporting new methods of producing sustainable ingredients. Technological advancement in this area could accelerate the development of plant-based and cultivated seafood, which can provide millions of Europeans with the seafood they love without further harming our oceans. 

“We now need to see these encouraging words backed by targeted R&D investment to help develop a thriving European alternative seafood industry – sorely needed as the continent currently imports three times more seafood than it produces, and nearly half of EU marine habitats are assessed as endangered or near threatened.”

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