Commission on quest to unlock algae’s potential in the EU

Algae have the potential not only to improve European diets but also to contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) mitigation, the EU’s Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

In a bid to give a push for scaling up the algae industry while it is still at the ’embryonic’ stage, the Europen Commission adopted a pioneering initiative called ‘Towards a strong and sustainable EU algae sector’ on 15 November.

“Algae is a positive thing in many ways,” said Sinkevičius. Despite that, “there is huge untapped potential” in the EU.

In EU policy, the term ‘algae’ covers single-celled microalgae cultivated in open ponds or in closed systems, such as laboratories, and macroalgae, harvested from wild stocks or cultivated in aquaculture systems, for example, seaweed.

It can be used not only as a healthy and low-calorie food, with some species having particularly high protein content, but also for animal feed, pharmaceuticals, bio-based plastics, paper construction, clothing, biostimulants or even biofuels.

Moreover, algae can contribute to zero pollution ambition, and preserve and restore biodiversity as they remove nutrients from aquatic ecosystems

In this way, seaweed can reduce eutrophication and pollution in the waters and when it is cultivated at sea it removes carbon and reduces ocean acidification.

Importing algae instead of cultivating it

Nearly 36 million tonnes of algae were produced in 2017, with EU production accounting for only 0.2%. At the same time, the bloc remains one of the biggest importers of seaweed products globally and the demand is expected to reach €9 billion in 2030, especially in food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and energy production.

According to an EU official, every indicator shows that the markets for these products are going up, as well as the demand.

“Europeans are already eating sushi, wakame salads, seaweed chips. But these all come from Asia, why couldn’t we do this with those of European origin?” the EU official wondered in an informal press briefing.

Despite the growing demand, the sector is still “relatively embryonic” in the EU, the official said. In the EU algae are mainly harvested from the wild rather than being cultivated in aquaculture facilities as in Asia, for example.

The reason for missing out on algae is a “lack of knowledge and technology,” as the sector is “still relatively new,” Commissioner Sinkevičius said.

He stressed that there was a focus on fisheries for ensuring healthy protein coming from the seas. “Now the situation is changing dramatically, especially when the need for sustainable food has increased drastically,” he said.

Unlocking the potential 

To unlock the potential of algae in the EU, the Commission’s initiative published last week proposed 23 actions to help the industry grow into a robust, sustainable and regenerative sector capable of meeting the growing EU demand.

The actions focus on four different areas: improving the governance framework and legislation, improving the business environment, closing research gaps, and increasing social awareness and market exemptions.

While several EU rules mention algae, such as the water framework directive or marine strategy directive, with the algae initiative, the Commission hopes to pave the way for a more comprehensive and coordinated approach.

“What we want with the EU algae initiative is to actually unlock the potential of the EU algae sector, supporting the development of algae innovation and production,” Sinkevičius said adding that “the ultimate objective is to accelerate the scale-up of algae industry in Europe”. 

Sinkevičius added that “such industry may harness the potential of vast European seas while of course creating additional jobs to local communities, and very importantly, producing healthy low carbon products”.

It is estimated that by 2030, European producers could capture almost one-third of the demand or around €‎2.7 billion out of €‎9.3 billion. “This would then mitigate around 5.4 million tonnes of CO2 annually and that would also generate additional 85,000 jobs,” Sinkevičius said.

Environmental impact

The initiative also takes into account risks for the environment due to excessive algae farming.

But Sinkevičius is optimistic about the impact at this stage when it is cultivated in “relatively small amounts”.

“We really don’t see that there might be a negative input. On the contrary, algae cultivation can provide very positive ecosystem service to the marine environment.” 

This might come as an issue in the future, with the expansion of seaweed cultivation, he added but stressed that the Commission would address potential risks and environmental impacts.

“We will work together with the industry and member states to have a clear monitoring, clear methodologies and indicators to measure impact from seaweed cultivation when it increases,” the Commissioner said.

The EU executive will discuss the Communication with the European Parliament and the Council and will coordinate putting the 23 actions into practice with the member states, industry and other relevant stakeholders, Commission’s press release said.


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