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Algae are fascinating life forms. Not only have they been around for over a billion years, they also reign as the ancestors of all aquatic and land plants on earth. Without plants to feed on, aquatic organisms would never have evolved into fish which, in turn, would never have evolved into land animals, including humans. And despite their ancient origins, algae continue to be critical to our existence even today, by contributing to ocean and coastal productivity, as well as to food security. They produce roughly 50% of oxygen on earth. They also absorb CO2 and, in doing so, lend us a helping hand in our fight against global warming.
In addition, cultivation of algae leaves a low environmental footprint because, just as with shellfish, they are not fed with crops or other marine life. Instead, they feed on nutrients – nutrients that might otherwise cause eutrophication.
Though of common usage in speech, the word “algae” is actually an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of species, ranging from unicellular microalgae organisms visible only through a microscope to multicellular macroalgae forms, such as the seaweed we’re all familiar with. The multicellular forms are traditionally broken down into red, brown and green macroalgae, based on – guess what? – their colour.
Having “fuelled” the evolution of all life on earth is already an outstanding achievement for algae, yet there’s even more. One of the most mind-boggling things about algae is their versatility.
Studies are underway to investigate algae’s potential to mitigate climate change and to absorb nutrients. You can check some results here.
Algae have been recognised as one of the most promising resource of the blue bioeconomy (e.g. "by definition, 'blue bioeconomy' incorporates any economic activity associated with the use of renewable aquatic biological resources to make products", EUMOFA, Blue Bioeconomy Report 2022, p. vii). And this list below presents just some of the beneficial economic and environmental and healthcare options algae offer:
- Eat them. Algae have been a source of food for millennia. In East and South-East Asia, algae are a staple of local cuisine. While not equally popular in Europe, they are a growing sector.
- Fertilise soil. Algae have long been used to fertilise crops as they provide a rich source of nutrients and organic matter.
- Make bioplastics. Yes, algae produce polymers that can be used to make 100% marine-biodegradable plastic.
- Develop medical drugs. Compounds extracted from algae have proved to be effective against health conditions such as cancer, allergies, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and inflammation.
- Skincare. Microalgal extracts are part of various cosmetics such as anti-aging and rejuvenating creams, sun protectants and hair care products.
- Fix what we break. Algae can be used to remove, degrade, or render harmless pollutants in aquatic systems. Pollutants are introduced into the aquatic ecosystems as a result of human activities involving agricultural use, fuel use, industrial discharges, domestic effluents and agricultural runoff.
- Burn cleaner fuel. Algae’s biomass used in biofuel production has an advantage over the biofuel produced from agricultural feedstock. Algae cultivation has the advantage of not needing agricultural land and irrigation.
With such enormous potential, it is no wonder that the EU Commission has gone to great lengths to support the algae sector, as part of its effort to fully embed the blue economy into the Green Deal and the recovery strategy.
The Communication on a new approach for a sustainable blue economy in the EU (COM(2021) 240 final) recognised algae’s potential for delivering a number of sustainable applications and the European Commission adopted a dedicated initiative in November 2022 – the Communication "Towards a strong and sustainable EU algae sector" – to support the development of the EU’s algae industry. The initiative includes 23 actions to boost the sector in Europe, and builds on the results of a public consultation run from May to August 2021.
In 2022, the EU4Algae Forum was launched with the aim to create a European algae stakeholder forum as a unique space for collaboration among European algae stakeholders and a single information hub on algae funding calls, projects, business-related information, intelligence, and best practices.
A dedicated knowledge hub, set up by the Joint Research Centre of the EU Commission, also contains facts and figures about algae biomass production in Europe, including a dashboard with production locations. It also links to ongoing research projects, recent publications and other useful information.
Further, a number of cutting-edge research projects are being funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) and its successor, the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF).
KELP-EU aims at scaling up the seaweed biorefinery process (TRL6-8), with the target to increase the annual seaweed processing volume but is also working towards developing new products from the sustainable use of by-products, such as kelp protein, fibre, fucoidan, and beta-glucan, obtained from the biorefinery process. ULVA FARM has developed highly resistant sea lettuce sporelings to overcome harsh ocean conditions, unlocking the production of low-cost, high quality sea lettuce at scale while COOL BLUE BALTIC will consider the option of regenerative ocean farming.
AMALIA screened marine invasive macroalgae in order to identify high-value molecules and enriched extracts with pharmacological, feed and food potential and, in turn, to boost the development of high added value products that may be deployed in the market within 2 to 4 years. AlgaeDemo aimed to demonstrate the sustainable, large-scale industrial cultivation of select native bred seaweed species in the open sea. By applying a state-of-the-art autonomous underwater vehicle for monitoring the growth of the macroalgae and the condition of the substrates and anchoring, a largely automated and highly reliable seaweed farm will be built to reduce costs as well as risks to people, property and global warming. AFRIMED developed and promoted robust protocols to restore damaged or degraded macroalgal forests in the Mediterranean. It also provided a framework for scaling up the approach in other regions.
Biogears has developed biobased ropes useful in offshore mussel and algae aquaculture. These ropes are an important step towards a greener aquaculture industry. OpenMode has tested floating connectable modules for intensive farming in open waters. Eight modules have been installed in Spain, Denmark, Croatia, Montenegro and Malta; local farmers will share these modules to harvest molluscs or macroalgae. They will learn through trainings how to use them to avoid predation, achieve more phytoplankton or scale-up compensation measures, and then they will share their user experience with the designers and other farmers.
More info on algae
Complete list of EMFF/EMFAF-funded projects
|Project name||Start date||End date||Total budget in €||EU contribution in €|
|Algae-to-Market Lab Ideas - Adding value to marine invasive seaweeds of the Iberian northwest (AMALIA)||01/02/2017||31/01/2019||581,413||465,129|
|Demonstration of large scale seaweed cultivation at open sea and the positive effects thereof on the ocean (AlgaeDemo)||01/01/2019||31/12/2022||1,538,203||999,833|
|Algal Forest Restoration In the MEDiterranean Sea (AFRIMED)||01/01/2019||31/12/2022||1,858,354||1,486,111|
|Promotion of large scale sea cultivation of green seaweed (ULVA FARM)||01/10/2021||31/12/2023||1,209,555||846,689|
|An innovative, sector-leading seaweed biorefinery that enables the European blue circular economy (KELP-EU)||01/10/2021||31/03/2023||3,091,347||2,158,801|
|Biobased gears as solutions for the creation of an eco-friendly offshore aquaculture sector, in a multitrophic approach, and new biobased value chains (Biogears)||01/11/2019||30/04/2023||1,179,025||943,220|
|Demonstration of intensive shellfish farming in OPEN waters with resilient and affordable MODulEs (OpenMode)||01/11/2019||31/10/2021||844,967||549,228|
|Eco-friendly and sustainable new family of biopesticides based on microalgae via circular economy approach (ALGAENAUTS)||01/10/2021||30/09/2023||1,358,836||951,185|
|Fish substitute from algae to preserve marine wildlife and develop algaculture (SEAFOOD ALGTERNATIVE)||01/08/2021||31/07/2023||2,837,219||1,986,053|
|COmmunity Ocean farms and Local Business cLUstErs in the BALTIC sea (COOL BLUE BALTIC)||01/10/2023||30/09/2025||749,922.34||599,937.87|
|Other blue bioeconomy projects not related to algae|
|Replacing soy with Pekilo protein in aquafeed (AquaPekilo)||01/10/2021||30/09/2024||1,678,830||1,175,181|
|Sustainably produced Marine Coral for Innovative Applications in Bio-medicine for Human Health (CORAL4HEALTH)||01/11/2019||31/10/2021||872,390||567,053|
Several EU programmes also support algae projects, please have a look at the most recent ones:
Algae for innovative products:
Regenerative ocean farming, integrated multitrophic aquaculture and low trophic aquaculture: