EU Science Hub

Algae biomass production for the bioeconomy

Algae biomass can be exploited for a wide variety of applications, including food, fertiliser, fuel, biomaterials and bioremediation.
Jan 17 2020

The latest brief prepared by the JRC for the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy (KCB) informs about algae biomass production in the EU and globally, and maps algae production units in Europe.  

It reports increasing production levels and opportunities for development to meet growing demand in Europe and worldwide, and highlights the need for sustainable management of the sector in the face of multiple stressors and species decline.

Algae - what they are, and what they do

When people think of algae, they typically picture kelp washing up on the beach or a lake discoloured due to an algal bloom.

The term ‘algae’ actually describes a diverse group (of more than 72,500 species) of aquatic photosynthetic organisms. The larger, pluricellular, types of algae are called macroalgae. These can be several millimetres to 70 m in length, and make up 20% of all algae species. The remaining 80% is made up of microalgae (unicellular algae).

As well as providing habitats and food for many food-web species, algae also contribute to carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling and coastal protection.

Human uses of algae

Algae have been used for centuries as fertiliser, food and feed.

They are currently used primarily by the food and chemical industries, with new applications emerging in the areas of food and feed, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, biomaterials and bioremediation services.

Macroalgae are harvested from wild stocks or produced in aquaculture systems, while microalgae are cultivated in open (e.g. raceway ponds) or closed (photobioreactors and fermenters) systems.

Global and EU production of macroalgae biomass

Macroalgae biomass production has gradually increased worldwide since 1950, driven by a growth in demand and aquaculture production in Asian countries.

Global production of macroalgae biomass has more than trebled in the past 20 years, reaching 32.67 Mt in 2016. Most (97%) of this growth is based on Asian aquaculture, led by China and Indonesia (which has shown remarkable growth in the past 20 years). The remaining 3% (1.2 Mt) comes from wild harvesting, which is led by Chile, China and Norway.

The EU share of global macroalgae biomass production is very small: only 0.28%. France, Denmark and Ireland are the largest EU producers. In contrast to the global trend, EU macroalgae production is primarily (98%) based on wild harvesting rather than aquaculture.

According to the best available data, EU production of algae (macro- and microalgae) is generated by 144 production plants based in 15 Member States.

Number of companies producing algae biomass in Europe, (a) share between macroalgae and microalgae and production systems for (b) macroalgae and (c) microalgae, as of December 2019.

While the EU bucks the global trend by harvesting macroalgae mostly (98%) from wild stocks rather than aquaculture, the growing number of aquaculture plants represent an important part of the macroalgae production units.

Value to the EU

The algae sector contributes to the EU blue bioeconomy and holds great potential for development in terms of employment and the economy, especially for coastal and remote areas.

According to the EU Blue Economy report of 2019, the EU algae sector has an annual turnover of €1.5 billion for direct activities (with indirect activities such as research adding an additional €240 million).

Looking to the future – environmentally sustainable management plans

As a biological resource, algae could potentially provide an environmentally sound solution and contribute to meeting the increasing demands for food, feed, energy and materials.

However, as some of the commercially exploited species in Europe are already in decline (mainly due to global warming, herbivory, overharvesting, poor water quality and the introduction of non-native species), an ecosystem approach needs to be implemented for the sustainable development of both wild harvesting and aquaculture activities.

Algae aquaculture of both micro- and macroalgae has proven environmental benefits for meeting the increasing demand for algae biomass while decreasing the pressure on wild stocks. However, further studies are needed to evaluate its full impact in terms of water, energy and land use, changes in sedimentation rates and structure of local communities, and potential pollution and risk of releasing invasive species into the environment.

While some countries in the EU and beyond, such as France and Norway, already have management plans for regulating the harvesting of some commercial macroalgae species, the brief highlights the need for wider implementation and monitoring of sustainable management plans that are in line with EU environmental policies and based on robust scientific knowledge and ecosystem-based management models.

Further information