Juan Luis Gómez Pinchetti, scientific director of the Spanish Algae Bank in Taliarte, and lecturer at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canarias, will be one of the speakers at the next Meeting of the Seas, where he will address the current status of research on microalgae as a source of food for humans.
Scientist Juan Luis Gómez Pinchetti is now scientific director of Taliarte’s Spanish Algae Bank, an organisation managed by the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canarias’ maritime science park, which has a collection of original cyanobacteria and algae from Macronesia. This has led him to work on various projects such as biotechnology in the microalgae sector. “Our origins lie in development of the production of both microalgae and macroalgae in the Canaries, because we feel it is a very interesting area in terms of its geographic location and environmental characteristics, and also in view of the economic benefits for the island in developing this activity”.
One of the most interesting features of his research and other work is a study of the production of algae for human consumption. “In Europe much importance is being attached lately to development of the production of seaweed and the generation of industrial activity in the sector. We are promoting activities and projects to this end. In that regard, one of the most important issues from the social standpoint is the production of algae for human consumption”. He adds: “algae have loads of applications in the animal world, biomedical, nutraceutics, cosmetics etc., but we’re particularly interested in the application of algae for consumption by human beings. In fact, I’ll be addressing the current status of microalgae from the food standpoint in my talk at Meeting of the Seas”.
The consumption of algae goes back a long way in Oriental countries such as Japan, China and Korea. “In our western market, we’re trying to adapt all that knowledge to the way we work. In terms of systems to obtain biomass and also in fishing management, which is an increasingly smaller concern because it is now being grown much more”. According to this scientist, three main groups of plants are cultivated, and only a few in these three groups are edible. “Most biomass generated worldwide on an industrial scale, almost 90%, is from cultivation systems. And 50-55% of this biomass is earmarked for human consumption. In the West we are adapting both the conditions of production and the species. In any case, the number of algae species for cultivation or consumption, of the thousands that exist, is around 50-60”, he says.
In this regard, Juan Luis is now working on a microalgae production scheme he defines as a “novel project”. “For the last few years everyone has known what spirulina and chlorella are, but the European market is now beginning to add other species which we know are functional from the perspective of foodstuffs, and comply with all European Novel Food regulations”, says Juan Luis.
Despite the multiple properties of microalgae, large-scale production is not yet possible due to the complexities of cultivation. “From the technical standpoint, it is more difficult to produce microalgae than it is to produce macroalgae. And so, even with strong demand, production is still quite low. Also, the utilisation of microalgae is more viable in industrial applications than in the food industry“. A situation which Gómez believes will be rectified “as we gradually solve biomass production problems”. And, he adds, “with the potential they have, it is extremely likely that we will also be consuming microalgae quite frequently. At the present time, it is macroalgae that are produced most for consumption purposes”.
Will algae replace meat and fish?
Considering the properties of these marine plants, the query arises in all debates. Gómez, however, is quite clear in his reply: the consumption of algae will not replace the consumption of other products such as meat or fish, but will merely act as a complement. “You will never see an algae-only dish, but algae will certainly be present in our way of cooking. They can be simple recipes. Spanish tortilla with algae, garlic and mushroom scramble with algae … but they will never be the main item”. He outlines the two main reasons for this. “Firstly, because we’re not used to them, and secondly, because we’re being asked to eat a variety of products for the sake of a balanced diet”. Juan Luis doesn’t want to miss the opportunity of saying that increasingly we will be seeing less extracted fish and more fish produced by aquaculture, “which is also achieving some splendid standards of quality. The same thing will happen with algae”.
The popularity of algae in cuisine, says Juan Luis, is mainly because leading chefs have added it to their menus. “And, as it becomes more widely available on the market, it will be used more often”.
Another benefit of algae is that it will act as a brake to overconsumption of other foodstuffs such as meat. “Meat and fish are a source of protein, and this is what microalgae are. Spirulina, in fact, has a high protein content, even though people may find it more or less tasty. Another representative example can be found in the world of insects. The consumption of insects is becoming more popular, and in fact it is even regulated now. Insect flours are a source of protein. And, again, you may be more or less taken with the taste, but we’re talking about sustainable, environment-friendly production techniques against a backdrop of climate change. It’s the same thing with algae. Microalgae are a source of protein, and macroalgae are a source of carbohydrates. They contain a lot of fibre in particular. What you can’t do is replace a source of animal protein with a vegetable source, but you can produce a combination and use it to organise your diet”.
The professor says that by 2030 “algae will be a major industry as a food source”, not only in Europe but also in South America or the United States, where initiatives are already in place to set up systems to produce algae for consumption by the local population.
As to whether algae could become new sources of energy or fuel, instead of oil, Juan Luis explains: “There has been considerable boom in microalga production to obtain biofuel in the last 20-25 years. There are various types, but basically we’re talking about four: biodiesel, biomethane, bioethanol and biohydrogen. A few years ago, when they were saying that fossil fuel was on the way out and we had to find alternatives, the focus was on biofuels. However, the raw materials used to produce them are also a source of food. There’s soya or maize, for example. What happened? Because they’re more profitable for biofuels than for food, there was a risk that they would no longer be sold for food, which is what began to happen in places such as Brazil or Africa. And all the alarms went off. So they turned to microalgae as one of the other alternatives to be considered. The problem is that they aren’t very profitable from the technical and economic perspectives. We still have much to do to improve the production and pprocessing of biomass to be able to compete with fossil biofuels. At the present time, in fact, microalgae biodiesel costs 2 euros, against 1 euro for the fossil biofuel. That’s not competitive. Add to this the fact that eventually we won’t have any fossil resources left, so … In any case, that price will have to go down within a few years”.
Finally, Juan Luis claims that algae are considered carbon sinks to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Some of the major projects being carried out in Oriental countries and also in the West focus precisely on this: maritime macroalgae farms as a sink to counter the effects of climate change. “One of the issues arising here is, What can you use a biomass we will grow in the ocean for? Are we going to sink them in the ocean to inject new carbon into the atmosphere, or are we going to use them as a source of food? This is quite an interesting debate. Using large production systems as a carbon sink, fine, but what are we going to do with that biomass?”. That is the question. Will we solve it at Meeting of the Seas?