In the iwi News
The microscopic organism grows easily in salt water without any trouble. Rachel Nuwer Eneko Ganuza grew up in Spain’s...
The microscopic organism grows easily in salt water without any trouble.
"The first steps towards microbial agronomy are being taken in an oasis in the desert."
Microalgae are invisible to the human eye, and yet under certain circumstances, they can achieve densities visible from space. In keeping, we often overlook their vast influence on our most valuable ecosystems. These microscopic plants contribute at least half of the world’s primary oxygen production. They sustain the marine food chain as we know it. And yet, their current influence is only a fraction of their inherent potential. Just as the domestication of terrestrial plants in the Neolithic period was a necessary precondition for feeding humanity as we know it today, domesticating microalgae may be the key to sustainably feeding our ever-growing population in the future. If we harness and concentrate their power, these tiny mainstays of the marine food chain may soon become a pillar of our diets.
The Power of Microalgal Blooms
Microalgal blooms occur in upwelling waters, when nutrient-rich, deep water rises to the upper illuminated layers of the ocean. Not coincidentally, this is the 1% of the ocean where more than half of the world’s commercial fishing occurs. The open ocean is a desert by comparison, making these spaces small oases, which happen to have the primary productivity of terrestrial rainforests. Microalgae bloom under very specific conditions, nesting the marine food web, and triggering atmospheric carbon capture. And their blooming is a far more transient phenomena than in terrestrial plants. Their organic matter turnover time (2-6 days) is three orders of magnitude faster than terrestrial plants (19 years). They produce half of the world’s primary oxygen using only 0.2 % of the plant global biomass. If only we could harvest those microscopic plants quickly enough before they sink forever into their depths!
An unlikely interaction of biology, physics, and chemistry produces this rare event in nature: the proliferation of a single, dominant, microbial species. In nature, most microbes (such as yeast, bacteria, fungi) bloom in a complex community, much in the same way wilderness areas are formed in a consortium of plant species. These naturally-occurring microalgal blooms should be regarded with the same awe as a cornfield spontaneously growing in the middle of the jungle. They pose a challenge: what if we could select a microalga with the right nutritional profile from the dizzying array in our oceans, and artificially mimic the “blooming” of a nutritional algae species?
A growing community of scientists and farmers has been working towards mastering and reproducing microalgal blooms in an agricultural setting. They are working on the assumption that this diverse and valuable resource can be domesticated like any other terrestrial crop. Microalgae domestication is a broad and evolving concept, which draws on many different technologies, some of which are common to the cultivation of other microbes in industrial microbiology, but ultimately are applied with the simplicity of a farming operation.
As Vice-President of R&D of the microalgae company iWi, I have focused my efforts on the Nannochloropsis species, because of its capacity to produce a nutritionally important omega-3 fatty acid that terrestrial plants are unable to make. This species produces eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA 20:5 n-3) attached to glycolipids and phospholipids, which is likely the most bioavailable form of omega-3. We have studied how, why, and under what conditions they express this product of interest, and we are continuously devising strategies to express as much of it as possible.
We selected this strain of Nannochloropsis for its capacity to thrive under our target environmental conditions, using techniques such as high throughput screening and directed evolution. While those initial approaches to finding better strains are common to industrial microbiology, our goal is to grow algae using a simpler and more sustainable farming approach. We reproduce a microalgal bloom using open ponds all year-round in a consistent and repeatable way, while amplifying the intensity of those blooms beyond what we typically observe in nature. This is a new type of agronomy: instead of growing fields full of wheat or corn, we are farming microbes.
This new concept of “microbial agronomy” operates at the intersection of agriculture and industrial microbiology. We seek to reproduce and enhance monoalgal blooms like those that spontaneously occur in nature by studying the biology of not just our target microalga, but also the microbiome associated with the algal bloom.
Producing commodity products from microbes may require a technology that can address microbial control in a manner different from what is common in industrial microbiology. Instead of physically separating our culture from contaminants using costly stainless steel fermenters and steam sterilization, our use of open ponds is an attempt to create an artificial microbiome that helps support the microalgal bloom. That means harnessing the natural capacity of microalgae and their hosts to thrive under exposed conditions. Growing microbes in open ponds is a farming practice rather than an industrial operation. In doing so, we are democratizing industrial microbiology into something that is closer to agriculture.
There are a wide range of techniques and biotechnological strategies that allow us to safely grow microalgae consistently throughout the year. We monitor our cultures, optimizing them for each season and geographical location. Fortunately, our algae like to grow in conditions that a lot of other microbes don’t like, which makes it a bit easier to protect from bad players. When necessary, we apply the same integrated pest control strategies one would apply to any other crop. We use techniques such as adjusting the pH or salinity of our cultures when needed, but we never use herbicides or pesticides.
Transforming the role algae play in our society
Microbial agronomy fills an economic niche that no other food production process can, and does so in a highly sustainable way. Algae can take resources once seen as waste and turn them into plant-based food such as omega-3 and protein. At iWi, rather than drawing omega-3 from caught fish and krill, we “skip the middle fish” and go straight to the original source of this nutrient. Algae grown in shallow open ponds in geographical locations that receive a lot of sunshine (such as our site in the Chihuahua desert in New Mexico) can achieve much higher cell densities than in nature.
This process utilizes arid land that can’t be used for other farming purposes, brackish water that eliminates our reliance on the planets already strained fresh water supply, and sunlight which is in ample supply on our farms. These are the first steps towards the domestication of microalgae in our lifetime. Just last year algae were included for the first time as a crop in the US Farm Bill. These steps are opening the door for new agricultural processes that will eventually transform the role microbes like microalgae play in our society.
"High in protein and low in carbon footprint, algae is a breakthrough for feeding the world in a changing climate."...
"It's something to really consider—especially if you're not a fan of fish." Marygrace Taylor Those bright blue...
"It's something to really consider—especially if you're not a fan of fish."
And how to easily incorporate it into your diet. JACLYN LONDON MS, RD, CDN, GOOD HOUSEKEEPING INSTITUTE >...
And how to easily incorporate it into your diet.
"Printed meals, edible bar codes and facial-recognition technology for cows are among the innovations transforming the food industry" By Annie...
"Printed meals, edible bar codes and facial-recognition technology for cows are among the innovations transforming the food industry"
By Annie Gasparro And Jesse Newman
A machine that prints chicken nuggets. Fake shrimp made out of algae. Edible coverings that keep fruit fresh.
These inventions—and many more—are part of a technological revolution that is poised to shake up the way we eat.
Rachel Crane @CNNTech I have commitment issues -- with my diet. Name the diet, and I've tried it. I'm...
I have commitment issues -- with my diet.
Name the diet, and I've tried it. I'm currently a pescatarian with fish as my main protein source. But I've been a carnivore, vegetarian and vegan, too.
Oh, and I dabble in "menu of the future" items such as algae and bugs.
In the last month, I've had algae smoothies, algae protein bars and algae chips. It's not because I'm a particularly adventurous eater or that I love the taste. I actually loathe the mossy flavor of algae.
I eat it because I'm a worry wart when it comes to our environment. We've gotten ourselves into some trouble. Our dining habits are a big part of the problem.
The average American male consumes 100 grams of protein daily -- almost double the necessary amount. This overconsumption isn't sustainable. The United Nations projects food production will need to increase as much as 70% by 2050 to feed an extra 2.5 billion people.
To survive, we need to reinvent the way we farm and eat. Experts say algae could be a possible solution. Unlike most crops, it doesn't require fresh water to flourish. That's a big deal. About 70% of the planet's available fresh water goes toward crops and raising livestock.
Meat uses up a lot of our finite resources, like water and land, not just for the animals but to grow their food, too. But the green slimy stuff that lives in oceans, ponds and aquariums can grow fast, is packed with nutrition and needs next to nothing to grow. It can even grow in a desert.
Several weeks ago, I visited algae farm Green Stream Farms in the sleepy town of Columbus, New Mexico, a stone's throw away from the Mexican border. With a location that feels like you're in the middle of nowhere and a population of 1,600, you'd never expect this is where the food of the future comes from.
But that's where wellness company iWi is growing a strain of algae on a massive scale. The farm has green seas as far as the eye could see. The entire farm is 900 acres -- 98 of which are currently being cultivated -- and operates all year round.
At the farm, I got my hands dirty. I wadded thigh-high in a sea of green algae and reached my hand into a vat of the harvested "green gold," coating it in cold, verdant goop. Feeling bold, I licked the dripping algae off my finger.
It was a far cry from the gross-tasting algae I've had in the past. That's because not all strains of algae smell or taste like pond scum. Some algae I've tried before even turned my tongue black-green. But the farm's fresh algae simply tasted salty and gave me hope people would willingly eat this.
"There are hundreds of thousands of strains of algae in the world and there is a subgroup of those that are stinky and slimy and gross, but there are lots that are not," said Rebecca White, iWi's VP of Operations.
IWi is betting their strain, nannochloropsis, will be next big food trend. The company already sells algae as omega-3 and EPA supplements at the The Vitamin Shoppe and on Amazon. It's now developing algae-based snacks and protein powders.
"The protein we're producing is not going to be green," said CEO Miguel Calatayud, adding its protein powders will be virtually imperceptible when added to other foods. It is "not going to change the flavor."
"[It will be] in every single food that you take on an everyday basis," he added. "Algae is going to be part of a regular food chain for us. It's going to be great thing for all of us and for our planet."
Calatayud said if the world's population grows from 7.5 billion to 10 billion as expected, we'll need to think more seriously about protein alternatives like algae.
"There will not be enough animal protein or other vegetable protein," he said. "There won't be enough arable land, and what's even more important, there won't be enough fresh water."
IWi's strain of algae takes what would otherwise be wasted -- saltwater, desert land and CO2 -- and turns it into something special. Made up of 40% protein, it can produce about seven times the amount of protein as soybeans on the same amount of land. The plant also releases oxygen into the air. (About 50% of the world's oxygen comes from algae).
"There are tons of desert areas all over the world and most of them have brackish water underneath," he said. "What we are building it's 100% sustainable and 100% scalable."
When it comes to actually growing algae, the approach falls into two classes: an open method in an environment like a pond exposed to the elements, or a closed system in a photobioreactor with a more controlled environment. IWi uses an open method by harnessing the power of the sun to feed its algae.
Algae at the farm is grown in long ponds called "raceways," and an engine constantly churns water to make sure the algae is exposed to the sunlight. CO2 and a tiny bit of fertilizer is then pumped into the water to help the algae bloom.
Algae isn't the only protein alternative scientists are tinkering with. Lab-grown meat companies such as Memphis Meats, Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods are working to popularize cultured meats and plant-based meat substitutes. Their products are currently on supermarket shelves and have a sizable following with vegetarians and vegans.
Other meat alternatives include bugs -- especially crickets, largely considered the tastiest insects. I've popped them into my mouth like potato chips. The hardest part is wrapping your brain around eating something you'd usually spray with Raid or squash with a book.
But they don't taste that bad. I've even had some bug-based dishes that were truly delicious. When crickets are ground into flour for protein powder, it's unrecognizable. Form factor matters.
More than 2,000 edible bug species are eaten by 2 billion people worldwide, and for good reason.
"Insects are rich in protein and essential micronutrients, such as iron and zinc," said Dr Matthias Halwart of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. "They don't need as much space as livestock, emit less greenhouse gases, and have an excellent feed conversion rate."
For example, a pound of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein, he said.
Perhaps it's only a matter of time before Western countries stop turning up our noses at plated insects and start chowing down.
And algae for dinner may be a long shot for now, but the powerful potential of this tiny super crop can't be ignored.
Miguel Calatayud We had a fascinating conversation with Miguel Calatayud, CEO of Qualitas Health, joins us in a mind-blowing...
We had a fascinating conversation with Miguel Calatayud, CEO of Qualitas Health, joins us in a mind-blowing segment about algae. This supercrop can be the solution to one of the biggest problems our world is facing.
Please excuse any typos in this hasty transcript.
Matt Register: Welcome back to Texas Business Radio. Texasbusinessradio.com is the website. 844-814-8144 is our 24 hour call line. Get your calls in, we’re going to get the experts in here to get you the answers to those questions. Jay Curry had to step out for a minute. He’s going to join us here shortly. I’m your host Matt Register and we’re talking about food. Everybody loves food, everybody needs food. Food is a big industry. Food has, drives a lot of the economy and especially here in Texas. There’s some really exciting stuff going on around our food and this segment is no different. You’re really going to enjoy this. We have Miguel Calatayud…
Miguel Calatayud: Calatayud.
Matt Register: Calatayud, I got that correct. Wonderful. Miguel is the CEO of Qualitas Health, with an absolutely fascinating story about a brand new industry that is here in Texas. I think you’re really going to enjoy. Miguel Welcome to the show, Sir.
Miguel Calatayud: Thank you very much Matt. And thank you very much for everybody to give me the chance to talk a little bit about us.
Matt Register: Well, I tell you what, tell me a little bit about Qualitas Health. Because and I got to be honest with you, we started talking and you were telling me about some of the algae that you guys were growing. It certainly didn’t make me hungry but this is going to change the food business as we know it in the world. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: So, very quickly about me and just for everybody to understand why this is so exciting. I was born in Spain and I was lucky to run a food company with my mentor, Javier Viertel, the owner of Viertel. And then I came to the states to do the same thing here. By the time I left, everyday we were growing about 650 million pounds of vegetables. So I’m very familiar with agriculture, worldwide, global company and I really wanted to do something different. I really wanted to participate in a project that would be a breakthrough in the food and nutrition industry. I’m very involved in the health and wellness. And I’m really excited about helping people to eat better and solve some of their nutrition problems that is in the world. And Qualitas was the way to do it. What we do is we grow algae in the desert of Texas; Millennium, Imperial and also in New Mexico and we will keep expanding this all over the world. And what we are basically doing is we are extracting omega 3 and we are attracting protein out of the algae. Which is, after knowing crops, I used to grow peas, for example. Which is what people take as a protein substitute to meat.
Matt Register: Sure.
Miguel Calatayud: And our productivity is about 300 times more than peas, in terms of production of essential amino acids. Which means that our hundred and fifty acres that we currently have on production. We are probably the biggest algae producers in the world. But our 150 acres, which doesn’t sound much.
Matt Register: Sure.
Miguel Calatayud: In, you know, in terms of beans or corn, equals to 45,000 acres of peas in production of essential amino acid. So it is really a breakthrough in the agricultural business, in the food business.
Matt Register: Well, I tell you what, there’s a few, several things in that statement that are quite amazing. OK. One of them is, you’re able to grow this algae in lamd that is otherwise unfarmable. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: Yes.
Matt Register: In the middle of the desert. Correct?
Miguel Calatayud: Absolutely.
Matt Register: You’re able to use brackish water that is unusable for agriculture any way outside of this. Correct?
Miguel Calatayud: Absolutely.
Matt Register: And we were talking during the break. Tell me a little bit about the omega 3. Because, you know, I know people that take the omega 3 oils and there’s a lot of benefits to it. But the fish and shrimp and things that, that most omega 3 is extracted from. Their not the ones that make it. Correct?
Miguel Calatayud: So, this is absolutely right. Many people are familiar with fish oil and krill oil. Which is the, you know, natural source for many people of Omega 3’s. What people don’t know is that fish and krill do not generate omega 3. It is the algae that they eat through their lives. What provides them with the omega 3. So we go directly to the source and we keep the middle fish literally. Right?
Matt Register: I got it. So, so, the omega 3 is being produced by the algae. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: Yes. And the advantage of us is, you know we have an amazing value proposition because we are a hundred percent vegan. Which is, very few can say that. We have full traceability because we are vertically integrated and we control the whole, the whole process. We have the highest bio-availability, which is the absorption rate by the human body, in the whole Omega 3 industry. Because we go directly to the source and we are born and raised in Texas. That is a value proposition. But in addition to that, we have a beautiful, noble cause. We are the new farmers of Texas. We grow algae in the desert. We use nonfarmable land. We use brackish water. We use the sun as the main source of energy and we are 100 percent sustainable and scale-able. Which is, business wise, very interesting to me.
Matt Register: It’s all very interesting. Right? One of the things that we spoke about a minute ago was the, the growth in the human population and the need to increase the amount of protein we produce and essentially the amount of calories. I mean you have more people, you have to produce more calories. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: Yes.
Matt Register: And at some point we’re running out of prime farmland. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: Yes.
Matt Register: Talk to me a little bit about the byproduct. After, after you get done extracting the omega 3’s. That leaves you with a great big pile of protein. Right?
Miguel Calatayud: So, our strain is very unique and our technology also. We have a very unique team, our, I will talk later about the team. We have the best team in the industry, in my opinion. I’m really blessed to be able to work with this group of professionals. But what we do is, over 40 percent of our biomass is pure protein and this protein is very unique also. Because if you compare it with pea protein or other proteins, our protein has the whole essential amino acid chain on it. Which is a very balanced and very high quality protein, comparable to meat or anything else. In addition to that our productivity, as I mentioned before we are 300 times more productive than peas, for example. So that is something that is necessary in this world. We are going to go from seven and a half billion people to 10 billion people by 2050. That means that we need to produce about… because we are eating more and better. We need to produce about 70, 7 0, 70 percent more protein and nutrients in the next 30 years. The seas are hurting, there’s not enough farmable land, there’s not enough fresh water. If you have to choose between a conventional crop and our super crop, you would choose our super crop. Right? But you don’t need to choose, because you can keep growing your normal crop in the farmable land. And we will be able to use non-farmable land and the brackish as water to do this. So this is a breakthrough.
Matt Register: It’s an addition, not a replacement…
Miguel Calatayud: Absolutely
Matt Register: Of that. This is, it sounds to me like this solves a whole lot of problems. Now, you guys have some unique challenges ahead of you. Right? This is, your supplement has gone through all the FDA process and everything else. You have an education to do with people. Right? I mean, this is going to take some time to take off.
Miguel Calatayud: So, we are really, well, it’s already taking, taking off. We are really launching brand with HEB. Almega PL is exclusively in HEB. You can find it in older stores of HEB. HEB is an amazing partner, by the way.
Matt Register: Sure.
Miguel Calatayud: Texas, very well handle company and very professional. So we like this brand. The customers are responding amazingly to that. Because, as we said, it’s the perfect quality product. It’s the best omega 3’s, that you can buy in the market. It is fully sustainable and is coming from Texas. So people are very excited. What we are planning to do is, we will go national by the end of this year with different brands. We are launching a live brand and we are planning to also go international in Q4 or Q1, starting in Australia and Japan. So we have a lot to do, a lot of work to do.
Matt Register: Sure.
Miguel Calatayud: Education awareness, it’s a very important part of what we need to do in the coming months. But we have, as I said, the best partners and the best team in order to make it happen.
Matt Register: Well, it’s remarkable and there’s a tremendous amount of science behind this. This is, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about algae. If, if you haven’t yet, you’re going to get to know this because it certainly solves a lot of problems. And with our problem of figuring out how to feed the world. This, while it may not be the perfect, you know, the one solution. It is certainly going to be a solution. Right? And all done right here out of Texas. We have Miguel Calatayud, who is a CEO of Qualitas Health. Miguel, thank you very much for joining us. This has been fascinating. We are going to have you back by the way. We’ve got a whole lot more to talk about. Miguel what is the easiest way for somebody to learn more about this.
Miguel Calatayud: So, the easiest ways is go online and just click www.Qualitas-health.com. Or go to any of your HEB’s and ask about our algae omega 3. And I do believe that you are going to be surprised about what algae can do for you and for the whole world.
Matt Register: Yeah.
Miguel Calatayud: Thank you very much.
Miguel Calatayud: No doubt. Miguel, thank you very much. Again guys, we got to go take a break. We got to pay some of our own bills. We’ll be back right after this. Talking about food. Don’t go anywhere.