18 Jun 2014

Microalgae for food and feed markets, an opportunity for EU's bioeconomy

Microalgae in an aquarium
Microalgae represent an emerging biological resource of great importance.
© Wageningen University

The European Union has recently adopted an ambitious strategy for developing the Bioeconomy. In this context, microalgae represent an emerging biological resource of great importance for its potential applications in different fields, in particular as a new source of valuable nutrients for human and animal consumption. A new JRC report provides an in-depth review of microalgae production systems, markets, R&D developments and product pipeline, and unveils the experts' opinion on Europe's present and future challenges in the sector.

In the food and feed market, microalgae are currently used both as dried whole algae and for the extraction of high-value supplements and colorants. Although the total production volumes and market size of food and feed supplements/nutraceuticals derived from microalgae are still relatively small with respect to alternative sources, the sector has seen impressive growth.

Microalgae-based molecule show specific advantages over their synthetic and traditional alternatives, including better product quality related to their chemical conformation, which makes micro-algae a commercially viable source for the food sector, despite the higher production costs. Indeed, according to the report's experts analysis, many European producers are stepping into the micro-algae-based high-value molecules markets, with large European multinational firms already beginning to acquire leading microalgae producers worldwide.

The report highlights several strengths of the EU which position it as a future leader in the field, including a strong scientific and technological capacity, active investments in R&D, and its leading position in the global agri-food market. Europe also benefits from high levels of human capital, including a workforce with adequate engineering and technical skills to work in microalgae research, development and application. Moreover, the spill-over effects from research on micro-algae for the biofuel sector and for sustainable production of food are likely to contribute to the improvement of the European competitiveness in the microalgae-based food and feed sector in the near future.

Despite these benefits, the production of micro-algae-based food and feed products from European firms faces many constraints including low European demand and complex regulation of novel foods, as well as unfavorable climatic conditions for extensive production of micro-algae at a competitive price.

The report reveals that in the experts' opinion the EU has the potential to become the market leader in micro-algae based food and feed products in the coming decade. However, to achieve an increased production share facing current constraints, new microalgae-based products obtained in the EU may be intended mainly for foreign markets, and the increased global production share by European companies (currently estimated at around 5% of the global market) may be the result of strategic acquisitions of foreign companies.

JRC Institutes