On the coast of Queensland, the banks of a tidal, saltwater river are now are being transformed into a new centre of modern agriculture. This is an algae farm, and if Dr Graeme Barnett is right, it could be about to kick off a sustainable food revolution.
Barnett heads up algae company Qponics, which a few years ago secured $1 million in funding, alongside the University of Queensland and Melbourne-based Nutrition Care, from the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centres Project (CRC-P) program.
The grant allowed the team to upgrade a pilot algae farm operating out of the university, and to start growing nannochloropsis — a particular type of marine algae.
“We realised the productivity at the farm, due to the climate in this part of the world largely, was extremely good,” Barnett tells StartupSmart.
This is no ordinary algae. This particular breed can be harvested to produce a high-value omega-3 oil. A by-product of that process is a high-protein biomass that can be used in the alternative-meat industry.
It’s also no ordinary farm. It’s entirely automated and modular, and easily scalable.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, this algae thrives in what Barnett calls “the Goldilocks zone” — the 200km of coastline that houses Brisbane.
It has temperate summers and warm winters, and an average of seven hours of sunshine every day. It also has affordable land on the banks of rivers, where algae can grow happily in tidal river water.
In a time when farmers have it tougher than ever, Barnett has stumbled across a holy grail.
“We are a drought-proof farm,” he says.
“We are not dependent on freshwater to produce algae.”
A lot less land
The Qponics project funded by the CRC-P grant has been lauded as a great success by all involved, and now the team expect to have an upgraded, fully functional algae farm up and running within a matter of days.
And, while it offers a sustainable food source, the farm promises to be lucrative too.
“We’re focused on the co-production of a very high-value product and a relatively low, high-protein by-product,” Barnett explains.
The EPA omega-3 product currently sells for a wholesale price of $US200 per kilo, he says.
“Within the next 18 months to two years, we will be producing 20,000 kilos per hectare, per year.”
The by-product of that will be up to 50,000 kilos per year of high-protein biomass, which can be sold on to manufacturers making alternative meat products.
“Over the next few years as we scale up to a 100 hectare-plus farm, you can see the revenues are substantial,” Barnett says.
Already, Qponics is in discussions with “major food companies” he says, and fielding enquiries about the omega-3 product both as a supplement and for developing alternative meat products such as tuna-free tuna.
If you want to replicate the nutritional value of the product, as well as the taste, “you need to have a source of vegetarian omega 3”, he says.
There’s also increasing demand for the protein by-product, and for the meat alternative products it could be utilised for.
Algae for protein can be anywhere between 20 and 80 times more efficient than growing chickpeas or soybeans, he says.
“And you need a lot less land to do it.”
In the past, the biggest constraint here has been the cost of the operation facility. But, the high value of the omega-3 product means the value of the protein becomes secondary income.
Within two or three years’ time, Barnett says, cost of production will not exceed 20%.
This algae-based protein project comes at a time when plant-based proteins are having something of a moment in the sun.
In the US, Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are making big names for themselves — although the profitability of their models remains in question. In New Zealand, Sunfed Meats is producing a chicken-free chicken product, made from split yellow peas and purporting to have double the protein of your average farm chook.
However, we are now facing new questions about whether plant-based meat products made largely of peas, soybeans or chickpeas actually do enough to address the environmental impact of our modern eating habits.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Dr Federico Davila, research principal for food systems at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, notes that overproduction of things such as soybeans can be “a major threat to the ecosystem”.
We are already seeing natural resources being destroyed to make way for soybean crops, he explains.
“This field is growing so quickly … it’s hard to stay on top of the sustainability implications,” he says.
“We need to produce more food within available land.”
The trick may be in leveraging existing ecosystems, rather than upsetting them, or creating new ones, he suggests. And if that is the case, something like algae could be a promising answer.
His work looks at the interaction between human and environmental wellbeing. And, while the right technology could help many communities make sure of their own ‘Goldilocks zones’ for algae cultivation, realistically, currently, it’s going to be growing economies, and middle-class consumers, making the change.
“People from developing countries might still eat traditional beef”, Davila says, “but can we in the west make the conscious decision to eat an alternative meat product that is produced sustainably?”
For Barnett’s part, he is sceptical about the long-term sustainability of soy and chickpea-based proteins.
“There’s only a finite amount of arable land available, and it’s all being used,” he says.
At the same time, climate change will likely reduce the amount of suitable land for farming, and the population is ever increasing.
“I wonder whether producing more and more soybeans for sustainable meat is really going to solve the sustainability problem,” he adds.
“There’s a mass protein gap to be met, with an industry that doesn’t have the capacity to produce the volume.”
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Aussie startup Vow Meats is cultivating kangaroo meat in a lab, and taking yet another approach to the future of food.
Co-founders Tim Noakesmith and George Peppou are focused on “reinventing the approach we have to food”, Noakesmith tells StartupSmart.
“From an environmental perspective, right now some of the largest issues that are contributing towards the degradation of the environment into the future come down to our food systems,” he explains.
“We have a growing population and food systems that won’t be able to scale in order to match that.”
Noakesmith sees this as an opportunity to take a new approach to food altogether, getting down to a cellular, modular level. As well as making food production more efficient, he’s looking into understanding nutrition and flavour profiles in a way we haven’t been able to before.
Of course, the kangaroo meat trade isn’t exactly having the same environmental impact as, say, cattle farming. But, experimenting here was, Noakesmith says, the obvious first choice.
“It speaks very closely to the functional aspect of food,” he says.
“It’s an incredibly lean protein that has been feeding one of the oldest living civilisations in the entire world for thousands of years.”
At the same time, it’s the first time anyone has used cell culture techniques on a non-farm animal — something that could offer a glimpse into the future of meat-eating.
“There are thousands of different animals we haven’t tapped into.”
Currently, humans eat livestock they have been able to breed for specific uses.
“Right now, we’re only consuming five animals for the vast majority of our meat diet.”
Being able to cultivate meat in a lab “democratises that process” Noakesmith says.
“We’re interested in exploring and bioprospecting a whole vast array of different animal sources, to understand what are the best flavours, the best nutrition profiles, and the best food experiences that are out there.”
Wherever the alternative meats trend is taking us, it looks like it’s here to stay. Noakesmith expects to see commercial lab-grown products on the shelves within the next few years, and “an explosion of choice” with 10 or 15.
Barnett agrees this is no fad “that’s going to blow up, become exciting and then fade … it’s here for the long term.
Ultimately, Noakesmith sees the opportunity for Australia to make its mark on the meat-free market.
“We have some of the best branded food experiences in the world,” he says.
“We’re right on the doorstep of Asia, we can tap into Asian markets, and we have an incredible amount of really rich knowledge and talent here in Australia,” he adds.
And Qponics is perhaps proof of this. The farm will be hiring more than 100 people, and that will only increase as the farm grows, Barnett says.
And again, he stresses that it’s not a purpose-only venture.
“It certainly will be profitable — there’s no doubt about that,” he says.
“This is not a small hippy-style business — this is a large industrial-scale business.
“I see nothing but benefits for Australia to be pushing forward the concept of algae farming for protein.”