ProFuture, microalgae to feed the planet. The EU research project

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Microalgae to feed the planet. The ProFuture research project – co-funded by the EU under Horizon 2020 – aims to develop sustainable supply chains to produce food and feed based on these extraordinary resources of nature.

Leading the project in Italy is the FARE division of our Wiise Srl benefit company, which involved Coop Italia and Enervit. Thus, the historical leaders in modern distribution and sports food production will be the key players in the development of the research. Functional, sustainable and vegan foods for the common good.

Food, water and health for the citizens of the planet. UN Agenda 2030

The first twoSustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in UN Agenda 2030, pertain to theeradication of extreme poverty and accompanying hunger. This is followed by ensuring health and well-being andaccess to water and sanitation. (1). Not to mention reducing inequalities-Reducing Inequalities, ranked 10th out of 17-in these and other areas (e.g., education, employment, housing, social welfare, equal opportunity). In support of the entire global population, under the aegis of the ‘No One Left Behind‘ criterion.

Malnutrition, including childmalnutrition, in Europe and around the world has reached an epidemic level. And it is precisely to a
Global Syndemic
that the panel of international experts assembled by The Lancet relates the alarm of obesity, malnutrition and ecological crisis.

Two-thirds of the planet’s inhabitants, in the most advanced countries as well as in low- and middle-income countries, share diseases associated with imbalanced diets due to deficiency and excess of nutrients and micronutrients. Where junk food and ultra-processed foods have taken the place of primary commodities in every social and geographical context, worsening health conditions for all. Waste remains largely unresolved in the absence of a systemic approach. And protein supply remains one of the most critical elements, which is also being tried to be addressed by innovative plant-based (e.g., hemp, in addition to grains and legumes) and nonplant-based (e.g., insects) solutions. These, moreover, are still far from reaching the necessary levels of scale, albeit in combination with other resources.

Microalgae, resilience and nutrition

Microalgae are single-celled organisms that feed themselves through the process of photosynthesis, producing sugars and energy-as well as other valuable nutrients and micronutrients-from water, carbon dioxide and solar energy. They live in freshwater, marine and hyper-saline environments, even in inhospitable conditions (e.g., deserts and arid areas, boiling springs, snow-covered fields). With resilience and abundance so pronounced as to deserve the title ‘endless resource’ (within the limits of ecocide). Of the approximately 200,000 species considered, ‘only’ 30,000 are described in the literature and a few dozen are currently in production, at least at the laboratory level. (2) Three species only-Chlorella, Spirulina and Tetraselmis-are currently approved for food use in Europe, with an estimated annual production of about 500 tons of dry matter.

Protein can reach 60 percent of dry matter, which is higher than animal (skim milk powder 36 percent, chicken and fish 24 percent) and vegetable (soybean meal 37 percent, peanuts 26 percent) sources. (3) With an amino acid profile far superior to that of plant protein sources, which require a combined intake to make up for deficiencies of one or more essential amino acids in their individual matrices. (4) Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ω3, Omega3) and several bioactive compounds also attribute antioxidant, antihypertensive, immunomodulatory, anticancer, hepato-protective, and in some cases even anticoaugulant effects to microalgae. (5) Spirulina, for example, contains high levels of γ-linoleic acid (GLA), B vitamins, and free radical-releasing phycobiliproteins. β-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, is present in amounts 3100% higher than in carrots. Iron and calcium in turn have contents that exceed those of spinach (+5100%) and cow’s milk (+180%), respectively.

Microalgae, production challenges

Large-scale production of algae and microalgae is widely regarded as an unexploited resource in the face of some of its potential benefits. Adding to the nutritional and health benefits is the high productivity of these ‘green bio-factories’. Protein yield per unit area, due to high photosynthesis efficiency, is well above that of conventional terrestrial crops. 2.5-7.5 and 4-15 tons of protein/hectare/year for algae and microalgae, respectively, compared with 0.6-1.2 tons for soybeans, 1-2 for legumes, 1.1 for wheat).

Seaweed and microalgae productions have more than doubled globally since 2000, thanks to the Far East especially. Due to the possibility of using land that cannot be cultivated and without the need for fresh water, the availability of which globally is now drained by land-based agriculture to the extent of 75 percent, with an average incidence 100 times higher to produce animal protein. (6) Nevertheless, the scalability of the processes is still limited due to the low efficiency of the technologies currently used to isolate proteins. The costs of which remain high, in Europe between €3.2 and €11 to extract 1 kg of dry biomass.

Industrial applications are diverse. Food and nutraceuticals, animal feed and aquaculture, bioplastics, biofuels. However, the use of microalgae is still limited to dried single-component powders, from Chlorella and Spirulina especially. Which are used directly, as protein sources, or in dietary supplements. However, the actual contribution of such products to human and animal nutrition is rather low, precisely because of the absence of industrial economies of scale and high costs compared to traditional raw materials.

ProFuture, the research project in Horizon 2020

ProFuture, Protein for the Future. The research project is fully in line with the Horizon 2020 program. With a view to implementing innovative, sustainable and effective technologies aimed at producing microalgae-based ingredients for incorporation into food and feed. To strengthen the competitiveness and interaction of supply chain actors and expand the number of microalgae approved in Europe for food products. Therefore, the contextual objectives are to:

1) To develop affordable, socially responsible and sustainable methods of biomass production from microalgae,

2) Support the production of protein-based food ingredients from microalgae,

3) Increase the availability and promote the consumption of foods reformulated with the above ingredients by increasing their presence in supermarkets. Six food products, alternatives to meat, pasta, bread, vegetable creams, soups and functional food for athletes will be made for this purpose. With attention to organoleptic as well as nutritional qualities,

4) Strengthen the competitiveness-as well as accessibility and sustainability-of the entire microalgae value chain in the EU. Growers, processors, distributors and consumers.

To achieve these goals, ProFuture will implement targeted innovations on four microalgae species, Arthrospira [Spirulina] platensis, Chlorella vulgaris, Tetraselmis chui and Nannochloropsis oceanica. Cultivation will be optimized through selection of the most efficient species, as well as the use of innovative renewable technologies such as photobioreactors and solar panels. New production standards will also be set by integrating research and industrial practices to make microalgae production part of the new European bioeconomy.

Research institutions, SMEs and some large companies from 13 EU countries, each with a strong scientific and/or industrial background in the fields of microalgal research, food and feed development, ingredient production and characterization, and consumer study, join the Consortium. Our FARE team will follow the regulatory aspects, on both fronts of mandatory rules and voluntary standards. Focusing in particular on the application of Novel Food regulations to innovative processes and the products that will result from them. (7)

#Égalité!

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) UN Sustainable Development Goals, 1) No Poverty, 2) Zero Hunger, 3) Good Health and Well-being, 4) Access to Water and Sanitation
(2) Norton T.A., Melkonian M., Andersen R.A. (1996). ‘Algal biodiversity. Phycology. 1996;35:308-326. doi: 10.2216/i0031-8884-35-4-308.1
(3) Becker E. (2007). ‘Micro-algae as a source of protein‘. Biotechnol. Adv. 2007;25:207-210. doi: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2006.11.002
(4) E. Conde, E.M. Balboa, M. Parada, E. Falqué, University of Vigo (Spain). (2014) ‘Algal proteins, peptides and amino acids. Science Direct, https://doi.org/10.1533/9780857098689.1.135
(5) Wallace J. (2000). ‘Increasing agricultural water use efficiency to meet future food production.’ Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 2000;82:105-119. doi: 10.1016/S0167-8809(00)00220-6
(6) Bleakley S, Hayes M. (2017). ‘Algal Proteins: Extraction, Application, and Challenges Concerning Production‘. Foods. 2017 May; 6(5): 33. doi: 10.3390/foods6050033
(7) The placing of novel foods, so-called ‘novel foods’, on the internal market is subject to a European authorization procedure, following an appropriate risk assessment by EFSA, under Reg. EU 2015/2283

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.