Algae entrepreneurs: Today’s science students, tomorrow’s food security experts

By Fran Molloy You don’t need to own land or have a farming background to get into food. Sustainable agriculture and food security is so much bigger than that – and so small it includes micro algae. Our foods of the future could also look very different to what we grow and eat today, says Michelle Mak, a lecturer at Western Sydney University, where its Bachelor of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security is fast gaining international recognition.
Mak says graduates work as sustainability advisers, in hands-on farming and for food companies, boutique and corporate. “One of our graduates is in Germany working on the development of cricket flour,” Mak says. Yes, flour made from insects.
As HSC school-leavers receive exam results in coming days and finalise their university choices, those keen on pursuing sustainable, profitable ways to feed the world have several degrees to choose from. At WSU, students start a three-year degree immersed in chemistry, biology and biometry (maths for biologists), then select electives that include food science, environmental science and entomology. “Protected cropping is growing rapidly and we work with industry to prepare students, training them through the greenhouse at WSU’s Hawkesbury campus,” Mak says. Protected cropping is big in Europe, where greenhouses are heated and CO2 pumped in to speed growth, however in Australia challenges include shading and cooling greenhouse structures – techniques likely to be in global demand.
WSU’s massive greenhouse – the first of its kind and scale in Australia – allows for unprecedented control of temperature, humidity, CO2 and light and is designed to give higher productivity while lowering energy and water inputs. One of the biggest new fields in agriculture is also one of the smallest: micro-algae is at the centre of a booming global industry that Credence Research predicts will be worth more than $53 billion in seven years. Australia’s algae bioeconomy will be worth about $1 billion by 2023, according to University of Technology Sydney lecturer Dr Alexandra Thomson. Most people probably already consume algae-based products without realising it, she adds. “Blue Smarties use algae as food colouring.” Algae contains high levels of omega 3, antioxidants and protein and uses a fraction of the land and water required to grow grain crops and meat. “Algae is an essential part of the food web and is present in nearly every body of water in the world, from microscopic unicellular plants to macro-algae such as seaweed,” Thomson says.
She manages the Deep Green Biotech Hub at UTS, co-funded by the NSW Department of Industry, where researchers and entrepreneurs co-mingle, with new algae-based products and services in mind. Next year, UTS launches the Biotech Bunker – underground algae manufacturing. “In the bunker we’ll be able to test and produce algae-based pharmaceuticals, vaccines and food production,” Thomson says. She undertook a Bachelor of Environmental Science at UTS, then a PhD researching coastal ecosystems, before taking up her hub role. “There is huge scope in this emerging industry. Many students combine a degree in environmental science or biotechnology with marketing, business or creative intelligence,” she says. Where algae is concerned, Australia has a lot of catching up to do, says marine science pioneer and entrepreneur Dr Pia Winberg. The research base is here and the industry is wide open for new ventures. A key challenge is that local investors don’t understand algae products where industry in Asia is well established, she says.
Winberg’s seaweed farm, Venus Shell Systems, housed in an old paper mill on the NSW coast, is where laboratory, farm and factory combine to deliver food, cosmetics, nutritional supplements and materials used in medical treatment. “The demand is there and it’s growing,” she says. “We need people who understand sustainable packaging, who can combine science skills with applied food technology, with marketing and business skills or finance skills.”
This article appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald website at https://www.smh.com.au/education/algae-entrepreneurs-todays-science-students-tomorrows-food-security-experts-20181207-h18uym.html

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