Finding a sustainable way to feed a ballooning global population is no mean feat, especially when food production is touted as one of the main contributors to climate change. While there's no quick fix for saving the planet and feeding its population, scientists may have found a way to catch up with global food demand.
The solution? Algae. Marine microalgae, to be exact.
Last week, researchers from Cornell University released details of a new study into the large-scale cultivation of microalgae, claiming that it could provide a sustainable food source for animals and humans. The report, which will be published in the Oceanography journal in December, also found that the single-celled organisms could be used for biofuel to replace more harmful fossil fuels.
But the discovery that algae could be key to sustainable food production wasn't wholly intentional.
The scientists had originally set out to produce fuel, which they did by harvesting freshly grown microalgae, removing most of the water, and extracting the lipids. What the research team found along the way was that the remaining biomass, after lipid extraction, is protein-rich and highly nutritious. The study concludes that the nourishing byproduct could be added to feed for farm animals like pigs and aquacultured fish like salmon, or consumed by humans.
The algae used in the study is microscopic, meaning that 800,000 square miles of the stuff would have to be grown to meet the current demands for fuel. As a result, 2.4 billion tonnes of the protein by-product would be created—roughly ten times the amount of soy protein grown globally every year.
Charles Greene, earth sciences professor and lead author of the study, said in a press release that using the microalgae as a food source not only provides food security, but also helps ease the burden that food production places on the earth.
He said: "We can grow algae for food and fuels in only one-tenth to one one-hundredth the amount of land we currently use to grow food and energy crops. We can relieve the pressure to convert rainforests to palm plantations in Indonesia and soy plantations in Brazil."
Greene added: "We got into this looking to produce fuels, and in the process, we found an integrated solution to so many of society's greatest challenges."
You won't look at pond scum in the same way again.