Algae strategies for a healthy “Less sugar, more protein” world

obesityYep, it’s time to “lay off the sugar” and get more proteins and veggies in your diet. But how do you handle a surging population, and rising demand for fish.

Turns out our one-celled friends, the algae, may come to the rescue. Here’s the why and how.

If you’ve been following the newsflow on sugar intake this week, you’ll know that a new World Health Organization guideline recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” says Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. “Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.”

How, er, “big” is the sugar and obesity problem?

According to the WHO, worldwide intake of free sugars varies by age, setting and country. In Europe, intake in adults ranges from about 7-8% of total energy intake in countries like Hungary and Norway, to 16-17% in countries like Spain and the United Kingdom. Intake is much higher among children, ranging from about 12% in countries like Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, to nearly 25% in Portugal. There are also rural/urban differences. In rural communities in South Africa intake is 7.5%, while in the urban population it is 10.3%.

Why less sugar?

According to the WHO, evidence shows, first, that adults who consume less sugars have lower body weight and, second, that increasing the amount of sugars in the diet is associated with a weight increase. In addition, research shows that children with the highest intakes of sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight or obese than children with a low intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

What’s that mean for the farmer?

Overall, more fruits and veggies — but also, sugars and starches need to be diverted away from the human food chain, and more proteins and meal need to be available so that we can a) get more body fuel from proteins and b) raise the availability of, for example, healthy protein and nutrient-rich foods like fish.

What does that mean for renewable fuels and the advanced bioeconomy?

Plenty. Diverting starches and sugars towards the making of fuels, chemicals and materials makes sense — better the tank than the bellyfat.

And, most biobased operators are in the protein market already. Algae, corn processors, soybean processors — all of them have a protein business. In the case of soybeans, the meal market and meal demand drives the availability of oil. That’s expected to be the case for algae, too, in the long term.

So, to make money and make sense in this sector, you have to be sustainable on the environment and on the economics. In most cases, that means that the value of the protein will have a huge impact on the viability of a project. It’s fair to speculate if there would ever have been a renewable fuels revolution if global protein demand hadn’t been growing strong, making more sugar and starch by-products available.

Why is aquafarming at the middle of it?

Fish demand is rapidly escalating, worldwide, compared to beef. This slide came from a presentation by John Benemann, the famed “Dr. kNOw” of algae biofuels, showing that farmed fish overtook beef, by production tonnage, back in 2012.

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But here’s the bad news. Overfishing is such a problem in our seas, that increasingly we are turning to farmed fish.  Again. Dr. Benemann obliges, demonstrating that farmed fish overtook the wild type two decades ago and now the competition isn’t very close.

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And this slide from Aurora Algae noted that fish farms would produce two thirds of global fish supply by 2030, and that “a major and growing market for fish is coming from China.”

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Farmed fish eat, by and large, fish meal — a food source that is tued to have exactly the right characteristics for healthy fish.

And here’s the cost curve for fishmeal., It’s off the chart bad news — fish meal supply is not keeping up with fishmeal demand.

In fact, if you’ve been following fish meal economics, you’ll note that:

1. Fish meal used to be worth 3X as much as soymeal, back in 2001. Today, it’s around 6X.

2. Today, fish meal is worth 2X as much as biofuels.

3. In the world of fishmeal and advanced biofuels, attention has switched predictably to the opportunities to use algae for fishmeal.

The exploding market, and opportunity

This slide from Aurora Algae cites a projection that “Aquaculture output will double in size from 35 Million MT (2005) to 70 Million MT (2035),” and they note that “70 Million MT of Aquaculture output requires 95 Million MT of feed, as well as the small number of players in the market and a supply gap for omega-3 fatty acids.

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Is algae the answer? The sustainabilty argument

As the Cellana presentation by its CEO Martin Sabarsky detaled, the sustainability footprint of saltwater (or brackish water) algae looks very good compared to beef.

Liters of water to make a kilo of beef: 15,500
Liters of water to make a kilo of algae: <500

Kg of CO2e emitted when making a kilo of beef: 16
Kg of CO2e emitted when making a kilo of algae: 0

Square meters of land used to make a kilo of beef: 7.9
Square meters of land used to make a kilo of algae: <0.25

Kilos of grain feed used to make a kilo of beef: 6
Kilos of grain feed used to make a kilo of beef: 0

What’s the optimal ratio? According to Cellana, something like 70% protein, 10-12% omega-3 fatty acids, and 18-20% fuels using “off the shelf” ag inputs, plus sunight and CO2.

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Is algae the answer? Palatability and nutrition.

Does algae protein work for fish? According to a “successful, large scale feed trial for salmon, carp and shrimp,” yes. A study reported in Aquaculture Nutroition in 2012 concluded that “Cellana’s ReNew Feed was acceptable for the three animals at the maximum levels tested (Salmon 10%, Carp 40%, Shrimp 40%).” The researchers concluded that “No significant differences in growth or feed performance were observed for algae-based feeds relative to controls, at either the 5% replacement level or at the 10% replacement level.”

In a 12-weeek trial with Whiteleg Shrimp: ““Whiteleg shrimp accepted all the test feeds readily, demonstrating the palatability of the new ingredients. The shrimp growth and feed performance data did not reveal any statistically significant differences during the entire period. However, body protein was lower (P < 0.05) at higher inclusion level.”

With common carp, “The performance parameters of the groups of common carp that received algaebased feeds did not differ significantly from those of fish that were offered the control fishmeal-based feed….”

Is it scalable? Yes, says Cellana. This slide demonstrated that algae could make money with small scale facilities producing 1 million metric tons per year by focusing on a high-value anchor product, as well as scaling to 20 million metric ton facilities with a focus on fuels and feeds.

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Of course, right now it comes down to what you use — algae are all over the map when it comes to their fatty acid profiles. The variations for two key omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, vary by a factor of more than 10X between, say, chlorella, nannochloropsis, and isochrysis.

Is algae the answer? The Economics and the supply chain.

Well, some of this fits in the “we’ll see department” — plenty of promising algae technologies are way too early down the “technical readiness” journey to declare victory just yet.

With that caveat, the production chain you select will be an issue. Dr. Benemann points out the advantages in using a two-step production strategy when optimizing for lipids — demonstrating that the oil content rises from 9% to 22% when brine shrimp eat the algae and concentrate the lipids for you.

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Those filter fish can consume down to 6 micron diatoms and can bring the density of free algae found in water by a factor of 6X over a 25 hour period, according to LiveFuels.

It’s not a scale-up no-brainer, though, as Benemann notes. Take the synthetic astaxanthin market, where there’s a $200 million trade at prices of $1200 per kilo. A candidate algae strain, h. pluvialis, would need to be produced at $10/kg for that market (alone) because if has a 3.3% astaxanthin comntent and you’d want a 50% gross margin on production, says Dr. kNOw.

Is algae the answer? The Controversy over algae’s value.

Experts agree that algae has a role to play. It comes down to a sense of the value — and that dep

In the NAABB final report on the future of algae biofuels that pegged the cost of algae biofuels at $7.50 per gallon today — the authors conservatively pegged the value of algae protein meal at soy meal prices — between $100 and $200 per ton.

With those numbers, technologies like whole algae thermoliquefaction become important — where you try and use the entire algae biomass to make $700-$900 per metric ton renewable fuels.

But another section of the algae developer market believes that, with strain optimization, algae biomass can have values far nearer to fish meal. In that case, the technologies that have the best economic chance produce as much algae biomass as possible for the fish meal marlet, and then use the residual lipid fraction to make fuels and nutraceuticals.

The Digest’s Take

Given the opportunites and the market growth, and the opportunities in strain optimazation that are just becoming possible with the “technology trigger” of synthetic biology, we expect that algae producers will focus intensely on the fishmeal market.

Those that fall well short of the nutritional and palatability profile required, will likely have to focus on technologies like whole algae thermonliquefaction, or survive very much as boutique players supplying omega-3s. The economics of $130 feed just don;t justify making proteins.

But for those who can unlock the $1500 per ton value market by getting the right amino acid profile and making the meal tasty for fish — well, the opportunities for scaling up production are considerable and the economics of the fuels marelts start to come into play when 20 million ton facilities are being constructed.

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