Although you may never have heard of it, spirulina is among the world’s most popular alternative-protein foods. This nutrient-filled and antioxidant-rich blue-green alga is highly sustainable, risk resilient, and grows in both freshwater and saltwater.
Traditionally, people in Northern Europe have based their diets on animal proteins, which include beef, eggs, fish, milk, pork and poultry. But such diets have huge environmental costs. For example, beef production requires 20 times more land and produces 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources, such as beans, lentils and peas. Not only is that a problem, but Europe must also depend on imports to meet their protein-rich food demands.
Now, however, because of spirulina, Iceland could become protein self-sufficient—and capable of feeding more than 6 million Europeans every year.
Future food feasibility
In Iceland, spirulina is already being successfully made in a novel, industrial-scale, biomass cultivation system that is carbon-neutral and powered by renewable energy. The cultivation system is known as the Hellisheidi Production Unit, operated by Vaxa Iceland, and located in the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant.
Spirulina contains a higher content of protein (up to 70 percent) than the same amount of lean meat from beef cattle (up to 30 percent). With the average European consuming nearly 160 pounds of beef per year, the topic of sustainable protein self-sufficiency has been pushed to the top of the political agendas of many countries. Spirulina, considered a “future food, has the potential to reduce environmental impacts—such as greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater withdrawals—by more than 90 percent. That is, if Iceland can scale-up its production and bring the price of spirulina down to be more competitive with that of beef.
To learn whether that would be possible, researchers from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge in England, in collaboration with researchers from Denmark and Iceland, used data from the Hellisheidi Production Unit as a benchmark to conduct a feasibility study.
The researchers assessed six possible spirulina scale-up scenarios, based on the use of currently installed and potentially installed renewable energy capacities. The models consisted of two main components: protein supply (including real-world, spirulina production data) and protein demand (accounting for adult daily protein intake requirements, as well as the suitability of spirulina biomass to satisfy these requirements). According to the scientists, to ensure sufficient intake of all essential amino acids, men would need to consume 86 pounds of spirulina biomass (in dry weight) and women would need to consume 74 pounds of spirulina biomass each year.
Under the first, conservative production scale-up scenario, Iceland could be protein self-sufficient with 20,925 tons of spirulina produced per year using 15 percent of the currently installed electricity generation capacity. This is enough to meet the protein and dietary requirements of 572,867 individuals.
In the final, sixth scenario, billed as the “ultimate scale-up,” the researchers found that Iceland could be protein self-sufficient and additionally meet the needs of Latvia and Lithuania, or Estonia and Lithuania, plus the Faroe Islands, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey. Under this most ambitious scenario using planned energy projects, Iceland could support itself plus Denmark (with a projected population of 6 million in 2030), or Finland, or Ireland or Norway with up to 242,366 tons of spirulina biomass per year, satisfying 6,635,052 people.
These encouraging findings were reported in the science journal Foods on December 22, 2022.
Greenhouse gas emissions eliminator
At the moment, sustainable protein self-reliance is a hot topic because Europe’s dependence on third parties for protein-rich crop imports to meet the domestic food demand exposes nations to protein supply disruptions. This renders European food security vulnerable, a situation which is only further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change on our global agricultural systems.
The researchers also noted the additional environmental benefits of spirulina production. They predict that if reducing global greenhouse gas emissions took precedence over Northern Europe’s protein self-sufficiency and spirulina biomass was adopted in Western diets as a beef protein alternative, the average consumer would maintain a balanced diet while significantly decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with beef cattle agriculture and meat processing.
On a protein-per-protein basis, for each pound of spirulina (dry weight) consumed instead of meat from beef cattle, 694 pounds of CO2 equivalent (CO2-eq) could be reduced. As a climate change mitigation option and under the most ambitious of the six scenarios, this alone could yield an annual savings of 75.1 million tons of CO2-eq, or 7.3 percent of quarterly European greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers acknowledge that the scaling-up options considered in the feasibility study assume idealized production conditions and that success is dependent on the allocation of adequate electricity. Too, there are financial considerations to factor in by ramping up Iceland’s spirulina production, as well as the wider, awareness-raising work needed to communicate to the public the benefits of spirulina consumption.
Ultimately, however, Iceland has an exciting opportunity to advance its biotechnology industry and transition to a position as a major and sustainable alternative-protein exporter.
Pastes, pills or powders
It’s undeniable that throughout history, the role of meat in human diets has been instrumental. But today, its ecological footprint is considerable and detrimental. It takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to make one pound of feedlot beef.
But for every pound of beef meat replaced with Icelandic spirulina, we’ll save 185 gallons of water, 1,830 square feet of land and nearly 110 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the alga may be consumed in different forms, including as wet biomass, a paste, a pill or a powder. For example, you could use Icelandic spirulina powder as an ingredient in pancakes, pastas or pastries.
You could even drink an Icelandic spirulina shake. And, for me, that would be one big, beautiful, whole food.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,