Beyond Biofuel, Cornell University Professor Seeks to Demonstrate Promise of Algae as Animal Feed Substitute
January 18, 2012 | Andrew Burger
All the attention and R&D investment that algae has been receiving as related to its high-potential as a next-generation biofuel has obscured one of algae’s defining, and well-known, characteristics: it’s a great source of protein. This fact hasn’t escaped the attention of Cornell University animal science Professor Xingen Lei, however, according to an article in Cornell University’s Chronicle Online written by Stacey Stackford.
In his Cornell University lab in Ithaca, NY, Professor Lei is raising pigs. No big thing; people have been raising pigs for ages, right? Yet, there’s a significant difference between the way your average US pig is raised and the way Professor Lei is raising his pigs. While the typical US pig is raised on feed produced primarily from corn and soybeans, Prof. Lei’s pigs feed on a protein-rich source of feed consisting of marine algae.
Conventional Means of Raising Livestock Increasingly Unsustainable
In the article, Professor Lei asserts that conventional means of raising pigs on corn and soybean feed are increasingly unsustainable as the diversion of these crops for feed ultimately competes against human food sources.
The competition for food sources, and biofuel sources, is only going to intensify. The UN FAO forecasts that world agricultural production will need to increase 70% by 2050 in order to feed a growing world population that includes many millions more people in fast developing economies shifting to higher protein diets.
What is clear is that prices for the world’s key crops continue on an upward trend, and that demand for feedstock to produce first-generation biofuels, such as corn ethanol, has been a primary factor underlying this trend.
By developing an animal feedstock from marine algae, Professor Lei may hit upon the means to alleviate a significant amount of the upward pressure being exerted on corn and soybean prices.
The Advantages of Algae as Animal Feed
Cultivating algae for animal feed offers several substantial advantages as compared to raising conventional feed crops. First, marine algae are 20-70% protein as compared to corn, which is about 10% and soy, which is approximately 40%.
The articles notes the following additional advantages: “Algae produces 50 times more oil per acre than corn, with a much smaller carbon footprint; uses nutrients more efficiently than land plants, with no runoff; and places no demand on high-quality agricultural land or freshwater supplies.”
According to Professor Lei’s preliminary research, dried, defatted algae derived from biofuel production could replace as much as 1/3 of the soybean meal used as feed for pigs and chickens. There are approximately 1 billion swine and 40 billion poultry worldwide. The average pig reportedly consumes about 660 pounds of feed before it’s slaughtered. Substituting algae-based feed for just 10% of the corn and soybean-based feed used up would mean 30 million more metric tons of soybean and corn product available to feed human beings, or for other purposes.
In his lab, Lei and his research team are mixing marine algae cultivated in Hawaii with corn and soy to determine what ratios work best. They are also working to find out if there are risks or benefits to human and environmental health in products produced from the mixes, such as meat and eggs, according to the article in Cornell University’s Chronicle Online.
While a host of biofuel start-ups continue to experiment with algae a next-gen source of biofuel, Professor Lei’s approach of using it as a basic ingredient of high-protein animal feed has the potential to accelerate the commercialization of single-cell algae cultivation.