This Sustainable Protein Could Help Feed 10 Billion People By 2050

|Updated Oct 19, 2022
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Meat and dairy products require 83 percent of the planet's farmland and produce just 18 percent of the world's calories. Animal agriculture is contributing to the worsening climate crisis, threatening food insecurity worldwide. But new research suggests that introducing protein-packed, nutrient-rich microalgae could help increase food production by 50 percent by 2050. Lowering the reliance on meat production in favor of algae-based protein could help feed 10 billion people worldwide as the planet faces unprecedented environmental issues.

Researchers from Duke, Cornell, and Stanford teamed up to evaluate how algae production could help reduce the environmental consequences of animal agriculture. The report highlights how algae cultivation can be a sustainable solution for replacing meat proteins. The researchers published the report in the ocean science journal Oceanography, detailing how onshore algae farms could minimize food production's negative impacts on land use, freshwater resources, biodiversity, and more.

“We have an opportunity to grow food that is highly nutritious, fast-growing, and we can do it in environments where we’re not competing for other uses,” Charles Greene, Cornell University professor emeritus of earth and atmospheric sciences and the paper’s senior author, said in a statement. “And because we’re growing it in relatively enclosed and controlled facilities, we don’t have the same kind of environmental impacts.”

The report details how animal agriculture is excessively resource-intensive, noting that the world's population will outgrow the pace of food production worldwide. This also includes ocean damages caused by overfishing, referring to the overly exploited marine finfish, shellfish, and seaweed aquaculture along the world's coasts.

The researchers emphasized that meeting climate goals and net zero emissions targets will not fully protect the planet from the climate crisis. The report suggests that to maintain food levels and prevent food insecurity, the dependence on animal agriculture must be curbed.

“We just can’t meet our goals with the way we currently produce food and our dependence on terrestrial agriculture,” Greene said.

Growing Microalgae Could Save the Planet

The researchers concluded that the best locations for algae cultivation are near the coasts of the Global South. Microalgae grow approximately 10 times faster than traditional crops and require no land or freshwater use, and provide essential nutrients including essential amino acids, vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.

“Algae can actually become the breadbasket for the Global South,” Greene said. “In that narrow strip of land, we can produce more than all the protein that the world will need.

"If we use algae in these long-lived structural materials, then we have the potential to be carbon-negative, and part of the solution to climate change."

Growing algae can also help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Algae cultivation requires carbon dioxide and the researchers suggested that the carbon can be extracted from the atmosphere to help produce the new algae-based proteins. In addition to this, the algae cultivation process would reduce runoff similar to conventional crops, which will reduce waste during the cultivation process.

This April, a team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University published a study that claimed that microalgae could potentially work as a healthier, far more sustainable alternative to palm oil. Palm oil production significantly contributes to deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss, but new microalgae substitutes could virtually eradicate the environmental damages from the oil.

The Dangers of Animal Agriculture

Right now, 85 percent of the planet is currently feeling the effects of climate change, according to Mercator Research Institute researchers. And one major consequence is food insecurity due to drought, supply chain issues, and disease. To slow down the climate crisis, adopting plant-based solutions is necessary. By adopting a plant-based diet, consumers could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent.

Eating plant-based twice a week for a year is the equivalent of planting 14 billion trees by helping minimize land use and reversing deadly greenhouse gas emissions. New solutions such as microalgae and even microflora production can offer consumers a nutrient-dense protein that's better for the planet.

Another report found that replacing 20 percent of conventionally produced beef with microbial-based alternatives could cut deforestation by 50 percent by the year 2050. This process would reduce the reliance on land-based agriculture and livestock, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and excessive land use.

“The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source,”  Florian Humpenöder, the lead author of the study, said at the time. "The substitution of ruminant meat with microbial protein in the future could considerably reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the food system.”

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