For every kilogram of beef meat replaced with a kilogram of Spirulina, one can save nearly 100 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, 340 square meters of land and 1,400 liters of water.


Published: DECEMBER 8, 2022

 The company VAXA’s production facility in Iceland. (photo credit: PETUR GUNNARSSON/VAXA ICELAND)
The company VAXA’s production facility in Iceland.

The future of food lies in Iceland, where a state-of-the-art facility cultivates spirulina algae – a super provider of protein, iron and essential fatty acids – to replace beef meat, according to researchers at Reichman University in Herzliya.

A new analysis led by Dr. Asaf Tzachor at the university’s School of Sustainability says that for every kilogram of beef replaced with a kilo of Spirulina,  nearly 100 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions can be saved, as well as 340 square meters of land and 1,400 liters of water.

A new study led by Tzachor, in collaboration with a team of researchers from the Danish Technological Institute, the University of Iceland and Matis Iceland, analyzed a state-of-the-art biotechnology system that cultivates spirulina. The system was designed and operated by Vaxa Impact Nutrition and is located in the ON Power Geothermal Park in Iceland.

The benefits from resource streams accessible through Hellisheidi power station include renewable electricity for illumination and power usage, hot and cold water streams for thermal management, freshwater for cultivation, and carbon dioxide for biofixation.

Based on a lab analysis, the researchers found that the nutritional content of the spirulina produced is superior to beef meat in proteins, essential fatty acids and iron, and can serve as a healthy, safe and more sustainable meat substitute in daily diets.

 Dr. Asaf Tzachor.   (credit: GILAD KAVALERCHIK) Dr. Asaf Tzachor. (credit: GILAD KAVALERCHIK)

Spirulina – often referred to as blue-green algae – is a type of cyanobacteria that is highly nutritious. Studies show that it can improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels, suppress oxidation, reduce blood pressure and lower fasting blood -sugar levels. Evidence suggests that it also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties – and it may help treat or manage conditions ranging from gum disease to depression. But more research is needed to confirm many of these uses.

SPIRULINA THRIVES at a pH of around 8.5 and above and a temperature of around 30 °C. It is autotrophic, meaning that it is able to make its own food, and does not need a living energy or organic carbon source.

In addition to the water, land and greenhouse gas savings, the Reichman study shows that the algae may be consumed in different forms, including as wet biomass or in the form of, paste, powder or pills. For example, Icelandic spirulina powder can be used as an ingredient in pasta, pancakes, pastries and shakes.

The ecological footprint of meat

While the role of meat in human diets has been instrumental in human development, its ecological footprint is considerable and detrimental. Raising beef cattle requires arable land and feed stocks and emits greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that contributes to climate change and global warming. Unlike many other alternative protein sources, cultivating this algaeic food source removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and mitigates climate change.

As the demand for animal source proteins grows, so does the damage that livestock causes. As a response, humanity is searching for novel ways to ensure its nutritional security, including the supply of alternative protein sources, vitamins and essential minerals.

Algae, especially spirulina, are considered to be among the most effective food producers on earth and can be cultivated using different techniques. In this study, spirulina was cultivated in closed, controlled systems, using advanced photonic management methods (controlled exposure to desired wavelengths), entirely isolated from the harsh Icelandic environment.

This biotechnology system is exceptionally resilient to fluctuations in environmental and climatic conditions, and can be deployed in a modular fashion in different regions of the world.

“Nutritional security, climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation can go hand in hand,” Tzachor concluded. “All consumers must do is to adopt a bit of Icelandic spirulina into their meals and diets instead of beef meat. It’s healthier, safer and more sustainable. Whatever change we wish to see in the world should be manifested in our dietary choices.”