A scenario analysis of the microalgae value chain in Europe confirms the high growth potential of this sector, in an area of the 'blue bioeconomy' where the Old Continent is still very far from the objectives.
The consultation and interaction between stakeholders - in a study (Schrammel et al., 2023) conducted as part of the #ProFutureEU research project - offers useful ideas on where to direct resources, in a network logic (1,2).
1) Europe, consumption and production of algae and microalgae
Consumption of algae and microalgae in the European Union they are marginal, essentially limited to the form of food supplements (e.g. Spirulina, Chlorella), some traditional Asian dishes in ethnic restaurants and exceptional local dishes (e.g. 'Mauru' in Sardinia). The complex authorization procedure established by the Novel Food Regulation (EU) No 2015/2285 represents a serious obstacle to the use of a wider variety of species in the EU market. (2) Whereas other countries – i.e. USA, China, Australia – are much further ahead in the industrial and commercial development of products based on algae and microalgae. (3)
Production annual total of microalgae in the EU is now estimated at 324 tonnes on dry weight, with food/nutraceutical, feed and cosmetic destinations. Production facilities can be located on the European Commission's Bioeconomy country dashboard, which indicates:
– algae and/or microalgae and cyanobacteria (i.e. Spirulina) treated,
– production system used (photobioreactor, open ponds),
– cultivated species,
- intended use,
– employment (4,5).
2) Construction of scenarios
The 'building of the scenario' it is the method used to investigate the complexity of the interactions of social and environmental systems to predict the possible effects of policies, measures and actions in the short and medium term. To this end, the opinions of heterogeneous groups of individuals and stakeholders on specific topics are collected, stimulating creative thinking on new opportunities and any risks that may arise.
The value chain of microalgae develops in the phases of primary production (cultivation, harvesting), transformation (drying, extraction), use of ingredients in other processes, distribution of finished products. Packaging production, the management of waste and waste water and their reuse within the supply chain also contribute. The researchers involved the actors of this supply chain and other stakeholders in two 1,5-day workshops.
Researchers have divided the 'multi-stakeholder scenario workshops' into five phases:
1) convening of a working group for the microalgae value chain. Two dozen members including producers, processors, distributors, scientific researchers, consumers and policy makers attended from various EU countries, together with Switzerland. Representatives of some environmental associations rejected the invitation, perhaps due to the lack of consideration for this sector,
2) identification of the state of the art and the factors that can influence the sector,
3) hypothesis of a possible future development,
4) evaluation of the measures that could and/or should be adopted,
5) development of recommendations for the transformation of the microalgae system.
3) Scenarios identified. Values and opportunities of microalgae in foods
The interaction of the participants allowed us to focus on four main values associated with the use of microalgae in foods. Microalgae are in fact perceived as:
– parts of a healthy diet,
– substitutes for meat and/or other sources of protein,
– safe, 'whole' and affordable foods for a daily diet,
– foods accessible to the general public.
ESG criteria to be applied to the microalgae value chain - as to all supply chains of other alternative sources of proteins and other nutrients (6) - should therefore be expressed in the following terms:
– Environmental. The low environmental impact, thanks to the use of only sustainable resources (substrates and energy) and a 'zero food loss' policy. Integral reuse of biomass, for a true circular economy,
– Social, Governance. Economy of scale and profits belong to the geopolitical context of reference, but excessive speculation on food intended for the general public can undermine the very idea of sustainability.
4) Challenges to face
The upcycling processes they must face the energy challenge with technologies aimed at reducing consumption, in addition to the use of renewable energy sources. Production lateral streams deserve to be used to extract nutrients, micronutrients and bioactive compounds. Without neglecting the option, adds the writer, of converting final waste into biogas.
Foods with microalgae they are still struggling to reach the mainstream, due to the fragmentation of the production chain, the lack of investment in communication, the poor availability of products on shelves. Consumers who declare themselves interested in purchasing and experiencing the 'blue bioeconomy' on their plates don't even have the opportunity.
Politics should encourage this promising sector both by reducing barriers to entry – through partial reform of the Novel Food (EU) Regulation No 2015/2283 – and by funding new research projects with high TRLs. In fact, it is necessary to stimulate technological evolution and the scaling up of processes, as well as effectively promoting the microalgae sector which also plays a crucial role in the fight against climate change.
5) Stakeholders' points of view
The opinions collected in the study in question confirm needs that have already emerged in other research activities conducted within the ProFuture project. Below are the points of view of the various stakeholders.
5.1) Producers, processors and researchers
The main actors of the production chain converge on the need to cooperate to find useful solutions to optimize processes, reduce costs and stimulate market demand. Research and development are considered to be the crucial activities to focus on.
The approach towards the circular economy must consider every possible fate of products, co-products and waste. The valorisation of microalgae and their metabolites - such as omega-3 fatty acids, proteins, peptides and other functional molecules with high added value - should therefore involve multiple supply chains in the food and feed, cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors.
The choice adopting short supply chains and reducing the number of intermediaries is considered a useful strategy to support production and reduce final consumer prices, under the aegis of a fair market.
5.2) Policy makers and large industry
The 'stakeholders "who define the scene" are those who have the most important political and economic power to determine and/or influence the evolution of the sector in the European Union:
– the European Commission, as part of the strategy on 'blue bioeconomy' (2018), adopted the Communication 'Towards a strong and sustainable seaweed sector in the EU' (2022). (8) Among the numerous initiatives - in addition to the various research projects co-financed in the Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe programs - we highlight the European Atlas of the Seas, the Blue Invest funds and the EU4Algae platform, (9)
– the large operators in industry and retail they play an essential role in the development of the microalgae industry, since it is thanks to them that these precious ingredients can be included in various food categories and thus made accessible to the generality of consumers. (10) An opportunity which corresponds to a threat, speculation on products enriched with microalgae. As noted in a previous study (Boukid et al., 2021) carried out in the context of ProFuture on AltCheese and AltYoghurt, when the prices of substitute foods exceed - or in any case are not competitive - with those of traditional foods, a boomerang effect can occur '. (11)
5.3) Consumers and final consumers
The consumer perspective was not highlighted in the study in question, due to the lack of intervention of representatives of the respective trade associations. A circumstance that confirms the need to promote public information campaigns on the 'blue bioeconomy' and its concrete applications in daily life and consumption choices.
Customers they are the independent lever on which the evolution of the market depends, to the extent that they are enabled to choose and thus stimulate the sales of certain products. Their attention - as emerged in the final conference of the #ProFuture project (2) - is focused on foods with nutritional and health-promoting properties.
Consumer attention it is also aimed both at the sustainability of the products and their accessibility at 'honest' and competitive prices. And if it is true that the production costs of microalgae in Europe are still high, it is equally true that they are added in minimal quantities (1,5-3%, on average) in food formulas. And that the costs of raw materials are a smaller item than the total production costs of processed foods.
6) Provisional conclusions
Microalgae they constitute a renewable source of proteins and dietary fibre, Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA, of which they are the only alternative source to fish), micronutrients (including vitamin B12, essential especially for vegetarians and vegans) and bioactive compounds with functions beneficial, antioxidants first and foremost.
Europe is still behind in this strategic sector for the 'blue bioeconomy' which, it is underlined, could contribute significantly to various sustainable development objectives in the UN Agenda 2030. Also taking into account the extraordinary ability of microalgae to sequester CO2 in the atmosphere.
investments public and private sectors are therefore indispensable, on both the fronts of research and development - strictly under the banner of 'open innovation', in the case of public funding - and promotion. Maybe even with the support of tax breaks.
Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna
(1) Schrammel et al. (2023). Actor groups influencing and shaping sustainable microalgae value chains in Europe. Front. Aquac. 2:1186325, https://doi.org/10.3389/faquc.2023.1186325
(2) Dario Dongo. The role of microalgae in food and feed, state of the art. #ProFutureEU. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 15.9.23
(3) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Algae and microalgae for food use in Europe, the ABC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 14.11.22/XNUMX/XNUMX
(4) Araujo et al. (2021). Current Status of the Algae Production Industry in Europe: An Emerging Sector of the Blue Bioeconomy. Front. Mar. Sci. 7:626389 https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.626389
(5) The bioeconomy in different countries. Explore the Bioeconomy country dashboard https://tinyurl.com/bdfh2ema
(6) Dario Dongo, Isis Consuelo Sanlucar Chirinos. Alternative proteins are not enough to create sustainable food systems. IPES Food report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 16.5.22
(7) Dario Dongo, Giulia Pietrollini. Algae and microalgae. Carbon farming and CO2 upcycling. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 18.1.23
(8) Marta Strinati. The European Commission proposes 23 actions for the seaweed industry. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.11.22/XNUMX/XNUMX
(9) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. EU4Algae, the EU platform to promote algae and microalgae. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 19.2.22
(10) Fatma Boukid, Massimo Castellari. Food and Beverages Containing Algae and Derived Ingredients Launched in the Market from 2015 to 2019: A Front-of-Pack Labeling Perspective with a Special Focus on Spain. Foods 2021, 10(1), 173. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10010173
(11) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Alt Yogurt and Alt Cheese, market and criticality. ProFuture research. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade 28.12.21