Spirulina – our perfect future food
By KEN STREET
From primordial slime to future food. The future is now.
What role could an ancient microorganism that was here long before our distant ancestors climbed out of the mother swamp play in rescuing civilization from its demise. Is a humble blue-green algae key to solving a global problem?
To answer this question, let’s do a brief history of civilization.
Urban civilization began when our hunter-gatherer ancestors domesticated a few crop species that allowed them to live in fixed locations, and not spend so much time running around looking for food. That was about 12,000 years ago.
MORE TIME TO RESEARCH
As farming methods improved, less time needed to be spent on growing food, leaving more time to research and develop technologies such as metallurgy, chemistry, commerce, civics, philosophy, religion, military, politics, and so on. This led to larger, more complex civilizations and urban centres.
Now, more than four billion people live in cities and rely on broad acre, mechanized, industrial agriculture for their daily bread. By 2050 that figure will have grown to more than six billion, and many of us will be living in science fiction style megacities.
So, what would happen to civilization if industrial agriculture were to fail? The answer is simple. Civilization would collapse, plunging the world into an apocalyptic dystopia.
By 2050 demand for food is projected to increase by up to 70 per cent. A smart question to ask is “just how stable and secure is our agricultural system”. The answer: it is extremely vulnerable and the future does not look bright.
During the past 100 years, we have lost 80 per cent of our agrobiodiversity as modern higher yielding, better adapted but genetically uniform crop cultivars replace old and diverse farmer varieties.
This leaves our agro-ecosystems vulnerable because they have very little genetic wriggle room to respond to changing conditions.
PERFECT STORM BREWING
And change is coming. It is not being alarmist to assert that a perfect storm of interrelated factors is brewing just over the horizon.
Facts we can be certain of are:
- Most of our current crop varieties will not be able to perform under the projected temperature increases.
- Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change.
- Agriculture uses 6800 trillion litres of fresh water per year.
- About 30 per cent of the fresh water we use is underground. We are rapidly pumping these aquifers dry faster than they are refilled, leaving us with monstrous water deficits.
- We lose around 10 million hectares of farming land each year to land degradation
- We use 16.6 billion barrels of fossil fuel to grow our crops. Fossil fuel is a finite resource, which is unequally distributed leading to increasing conflict.
- As climates change new pests and disease biotypes are emerging, against which our crop varieties have little resistance.
- Increasing cases of extreme weather events are already taking their toll on agricultural production, and the situation will worsen.
- We are degrading the natural ecosystems that provide essential services to our agroecosystems.
- Governments are spending less and less on agricultural research, right when it is needed the most.
What are we to do? We need to produce more food on less land, using fewer inputs under conditions that are becoming less favourable. We need a paradigm shift in how we think about food production.
TIME FOR ‘NEW’ TALENT
While wheat, rice, soya beans and maize were the rock-stars of the green revolution, perhaps it time for some ‘new’ talent. Perhaps the humble microorganism’s time has come.
Let’s talk about Spirulina.
Spirulina – scientific name Athrospira plantensis – is a microscopic photosynthetic cyanobacteria often referred to as blue-green algae.
As one of the elder species, it has been around for more than three and a half billion years and by its action helped oxygenated our planet, making terrestrial life possible.
Could it render us another service in our age of need? Most definitely, yes.
Later we will discuss why the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has described spirulina as
‘If industrial agriculture were to fail, civilization would collapse’
‘To produce one kilogram of protein, spirulina uses 26 times and 318 times less land than soy beans and beef, respectively’
the most perfect food for human kind. But now let’s talk about why it is a fit for helping us face a troubling future.
More carbon dioxide? Perfect! As a photosynthetic organism, it takes CO2 from the atmosphere and makes carbohydrates; the higher the concentration the better.
Higher temperatures! Not a problem. Spirulina’s optimal temperature range is between 35 – 37oC, while the yield of our cereal crops decline sharply much beyond w32oC.
Water shortage? Spirulina wins hands down. To produce one kilogram of protein, it costs spirulina 2100 litres, while soy bean costs 9000 litres and beef 100,000 litres. What is more, spirulina can be grown in inferior quality water that is no good for growing crops.
What about land use. Again, spirulina has it nailed. To produce one kilogram of protein, it uses 26 times and 318 times less land than soy beans and beef, respectively.
Because Spirulina just floats around in a nutrient rich pond absorbing food directly through its cell wall, there is no loss of nutrients from the system. It is almost 100 per cent nutrient-use efficient. On the other hand, up to 65 per cent of the fertilisers applied to our crop plants never get taken up, often running off to cause massive environmental problems.
UN: ‘IDEAL FOOD FOR MANKIND’
So, on all accounts Spirulina looks to be a robust, efficient future crop. But is it any good to eat? This is where things get even more compelling. Spirulina really is a giant among superfoods with a wealth of scientific evidence to back up the claims.
It is for this reason that the United Nations asserts that spirulina is “the most ideal food for mankind”.
As well, the United States Department of Agriculture has declared that “Spirulina is a food for the future”.
And the FAO has called upon nations to look to spirulina to fulfil their food security needs.
MORE THAN 100 NUTRIENTS
What is so impressive about Spirulina as a food?
With more than 100 essential nutrients, spirulina has one of the highest concentrations of vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds in the world including: biotin, calcium, iron magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, vitamins A complex, B complex, D, E, niacin and pantothenic acid.
Spirulina is particularly dense with these nutrients. For example, it has:
- 3900% more beta-carotene than carrots
- 2300% more iron than spinach
- 300% more calcium than whole milk
- 375% more protein than tofu and 200 % more than meat
Further, 60 to 70 per cent by weight, is made up of protein with a full suite of essential amino acids in the same balance as human breast milk.
But what is most impressive about spirulina is the range of health benefits it has exhibited in literally hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies. For example, spirulina was shown to:
- Have powerful Anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Just three grams of spirulina contains more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity than five servings of vegetables.
- Boosts immune function.
- Decreases strokes.
- Blood pressure control.
- Anti-cancer properties.
- Reverse anaemia.
- Reduce cholesterol.
- Have a positive impact on vascular activity and high blood pressure.
- Reduce allergic responses.
- Assist in the treatment of diabetes and blood sugar metabolism
- Improve muscle strength and endurance.
- Protects the brain from degenerative diseases.
- Protection against free radicals and associated anti-aging effects.
- Detoxify the body of heavy metals.
- Reverse radiation poisoning.
Surely when Hippocrates said: “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, he must have been referring to spirulina
GROW YOUR OWN SPIRULINA
Not only is spirulina a perfect food and medicine, it could literally help prevent the collapse of civilization as conditions become increasingly hostile to traditional food production systems. But there is more. You can grow it yourself. It’s easy.
You can’t grow a cow, an almond tree, enough wheat to make a loaf of bread or enough chickpeas to make humous in your window sill, but you can grow enough spirulina for your own needs.
This is because spirulina only requires some water and nutrients to flourish, and growing it is totally scalable. You could farm it in soda bottle, a fish tank, a kids swimming pool or in a massive commercial pond.
In this context, spirulina is perfect for urban farming. Imagine the health benefits of growing your own spirulina at home.
‘You could grow spirulina in soda bottle, a fish tank, a kids swimming pool or in a massive commercial pond’
Dr Ken Street is an agricultural scientist and Adjunct Professor at the Murdoch University’s Algae R&D Centre. He is currently preparing to release a DIY kit so anyone can easily grow spirulina at home. E: [email protected] Website: www.spirulinagrowco.com.au