From Pond to Plate: Why Microalgae will become Mainstream

A contribution by Lara Sutter.

Fig. 1: Microalgae as part of our daily protein intake (Colourbox, 2023).
Agriculture, with its major impact from livestock breeding, makes up 28% of the total environmental impacts (WWF, 2022). Switzerland, renowned for its production of milk products as a source of protein is making its first step towards a vegan protein alternative. Research has recognized the yet untapped potential of microalgae cultivation as a solution to substitute protein that currently still derives from animal products (Nikolov, Soto-Sierra, & Stoykova, 2018). It is astonishing that the potential of algae as a protein source has already been detected by the Aztecs (Rana, Soni, & Sudhakar, 2017), but only recently became a topic of interest again due to the high impact traditional farming has on climate change (McGinn, Tibbetts, & Wang, 2021).

Algae as a Nutritional Powerhouse

Often overlooked, algae are nutritional powerhouses. They are an excellent source of protein, containing all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, providing a wide array of health benefits (Branyikova, Hayes, & Lucakova, 2022). Algae are particularly known for their high content of omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain health and cardiovascular function (Branyikova, Hayes, & Lucakova, 2022). Whether consumed directly or used as an ingredient in various food products, incorporating algae into the diet can significantly enhance the nutritional intake and contribute to overall well-being (Caporgno & Mathys, 2018).

Sustainability of Algae Production

Compared to the farming for meat and milk products, less land is used per gram of microalgae protein produced (Caporgno & Mathys, 2018). Since some algae cultures can even be cultivated in wastewater, microalgae seem to be a promising solution for Switzerland’s limited arable land and water scarcity concerns (Nikolov, Soto-Sierra, & Stoykova, 2018). To produce microalgae sustainably, the energy must come from a renewable source and the waste heat generated must flow in a circular way, for example, it can be reused for heating buildings (Vattenfall, 2022).

Status quo in Switzerland

Currently, algae production is still in its infancy, but researchers have well noted the big potential of algae. Large scale-ups depend on financial support, political instruments such as regulations and standards which need to be implemented to ensure food security and market authorization (Caporgno & Mathys, 2018). Large production sites would help to ensure profitability of the final products.

Prospects: decreasing production costs

Further research and development in technology is needed since at the current stage, no algae species has been detected that fulfills all criteria, namely a high growth rate as well as a high productivity of its valuable compounds and robustness, which are necessary for profitability and a successful probation on the market (de Jaeger et al., 2018). With the help of genetic modification and engineering, the development of these aspects can be speeded up which would lead to a decrease of the production costs and finally ensure a profitable production.

Prospects: development towards acceptance in Switzerland

Currently, algae are suitable for products where green is already accepted by customers, such as pasta or sauces (Caporgno & Mathys, 2018). However, the strong taste and specific sensory properties of microalgae make an incorporation into products of daily life rather limiting (Hegde, Kumar, Parmar, Sharma, & Srivatsan, 2022). Further development is needed to find a suitable species as well as the right processing technique for a broad launch in the food industry.

Prospects: increasing market demand in Switzerland

Furthermore, algae products struggle with insufficient demand on the market (Branyikova, Hayes, & Lucakova, 2022). With the current trend to a healthier lifestyle, consumers tend to become more open to consuming algae-based food products. However, further marketing and awareness training needs to be done to increase the visibility and knowledge about algae as an alternative protein source (Embling, Lee, Mellor, Neilson, Randall, Wakeham, & Wilkinson, 2022).

The potential of algae cultivation in Switzerland is vast and holds promise for sustainable solutions as a protein alternative. Continued research, financial support, and awareness training of customers are essential to unlocking the full potential of algae and integrating it as an alternative protein source to ensure a sustainable development of the food industry.

This blog post was written as part of the module “Agriculture for the future” in the Master’s programme in Environment and Natural Resources at the ZHAW Institute of Natural Resource Sciences in the spring semester of 2023.


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