The most abundant biological resource on earth, marine microalgae, has not previously been used directly in food production. Researchers at Uni Research are hoping to change that through the MIRACLES research project.
According to the United Nations, increased aquaculture production and exploitation of new marine resources are the main basis for food production in the future.
Norway produces salmon corresponding to roughly 37 million dinner-sized portions each day, and demand is increasing annually. However, the growing demand for increased production also poses a major challenge for the aquaculture industry, partly because further growth is restricted by the supply of the raw materials used to produce fish feed.
Fish oil that is rich in omega-3 is a key ingredient in today’s feed, but the global supply of fish oil is limited to one million tonnes per year. Most of the fish oil used in fish feed comes from herring fished off the coast of Peru and Chile.
The combination of declining fish stocks, reduced annual quotas and high demand has resulted in record-high prices in recent years. It is essential for both the growth of the industry and environmental sustainability that new resources are found, preferably from further down the food chain.
Right at the bottom of the food chain, microalgae are the “marine rainforest” – they convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into valuable biomass by means of photosynthesis. Also called phytoplankton, microalgae can grow up to 50 times faster than land plants. Indeed one gram of microalgae can grow to several tonnes in only ten days.
With such a high productivity rate, this resource therefore offers a huge potential for intensive production of food or animal feed in the future.
Comparing Bergen and the Canary Islands
Researchers at Uni Research are now joining forces with 25 European partners to work on the EU-funded project MIRACLES over the next five years. The project aims to develop new concrete value chains for value creation using microalgae.
The research partners will collaborate with some of the world’s largest companies in the food, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals industries to determine how microalgae can best be produced and used to develop new products.
The researchers will also study how microalgae can best be produced in closed land-based facilities and how different climatic conditions affect production. Under the direction of Uni Research, this sub-project will compare the production of microalgae in identical outdoor facilities in Bergen, the Canary Islands and in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Substitute for fish oil
As microalgae are also the original producer of all omega-3 fatty acids in the oceans, researchers at Uni Research are working on developing the use of omega-3-rich microalgae as a substitute for fish oil in salmon feed.
By reducing the global need for fish oil, more fish caught along the South American coast can be exploited for food production, while omega-3 rich algae can be cultivated with far less negative ecological impact on the environment.
Several other areas of application for microalgae have also been highlighted, including in the food industry, food supplements, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals.
Through participation in the European MIRACLES project, Uni Research wants to help build knowledge and key competencies that will enable microalgae to be developed to become one of the most important biological resources for food production in the future.