05 February 2019- High in protein, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, potentially beneficial for specialty applications like methane reduction, algae is an incredibly versatile category that many believe can transform the feed industry…just as soon as we can figure out how to get enough of the stuff, at a quality and purity that can be used safely in animals and a price point that would make it relevant for this application. Unfortunately, this has proven to be rather difficult.
Therefore, the arrival on the scene of a new algae production concept is an exciting one. Qualitas Health Inc. is pioneering the production of photosynthetic [or technically “photoautotrophic”] algae in open ponds instead of closed reactors. As observed by Dr. Rebecca White, vice president of operations at Qualitas, the open pond concept itself has been one that has been tried for decades. What’s innovative, she says, is how the company is approaching the problem: instead of trying to take the lab outside, the company is borrowing principles from farming, “focusing on algae as a crop instead of as an industrial microbe.”
What that meant was finding a strain that was tolerant to the kind of operational parameters that would make large-scale farming possible; after all, traditional farming has had millennia to select the right crop for particular environments. Adapting to weather is an obvious first example. “We grow year-round, [which] a lot of other folks don’t,” says Dr. White. Therefore, even in the warm, sunny climates of the southwest US, where the company’s production is based, the algae might see air temperatures as low as -5°c and as high as 38°c. In Dr. White’s words, you want to have an organism with a range of a few degrees above and below those temperatures, and to have them not only grow, but have a good yield in terms of the nutritional products to be extracted. “That’s a very large range…you say that, quite honestly, to other algae people, and they say ‘no, that’s not possible’. Well, it is if you supply the right selection pressures when you’re screening for these strains.”
An algae which can tolerate a range of salinities and pH tolerance is equally important, for slightly different reasons, she explains. Chemical treatments for pests or weeds are difficult or impossible to use with algae, because of the risk that they will accumulate in the product, and because of a lack of approval for this use, so the company plays with water chemistry parameters to eliminate unwanted interlopers. “We’ll drop the pH very rapidly, more than a point, and hold it there 24 hours, which is detrimental to the pest but our algae will tolerate it, and it has little effect on the end product, EPA percentage and protein percentage in the biomass,” she claims.
Learning from crop farming also meant bringing in paradigms and practices which are standard in modern agriculture, such as integrated pest management, characterized by rapid detection, consistent monitoring, proactive versus reactive treatment to minimize pest contamination. “That’s been around since not too long after the invention of chemical pesticides,” she asserts, “but it turns out that borrowing principles like that…has given us our success.” This can be seen in the way Qualitas deputizes all employees to be vigilant for contamination, rather than leaving this primarily the responsibility of the quality assurance department. “Our quality control group is centralized, and then at each farm we have a smaller group of people that do day to day crop protection work, [based on] very simple things, just how the crop looks visually,” she says. “Constant and consistent monitoring is very simple and everybody can do it…the only equipment you need is a good pair of eyeballs.”
Production of Qualitas’s algae takes place at sites in Texas and New Mexico. They currently have 150 acres under production across the two farms, and can produce upwards of 10 to 15 tons of ash free dry weight per acre. The length of time between harvests varies according to the temperature, Dr. White explains; in summer, you have to harvest 2-3 times a week, but this drops to once every 10-14 days in winter. What this amounts to is roughly 30-35 harvests per pond per year.
According to her, this infrastructure “will take us through the next few years.” While they have room to expand at the existing locations—possibly as much as tripling acreage under cultivation—she points out that this is only one of the possible next steps in terms of volume growth, observing that from a biosecurity standpoint, there is certainly interest in diversifying the location of their farms as much as possible. Future production might not even necessarily be under their own supervision; “when you think about row crops…you don’t have one group that farms all peanuts [in the world].” As Dr. White explains, while Qualitas owns the flagship farm in Texas where the R&D is carried out, the New Mexican location is operated by Green Stream Farms, with whom Qualitas has a technology transfer agreement and a contract to buy the final product. After all, it is an expensive and risky venture to be concentrated in the hands of one single operator; moreover, keeping everything in-house would limit the ability to scale algae production at a global level. But, she warns, these partnerships must be constructed with immense care. “It has to be the right partner. Algae is not an easy crop.”
Nearly 7 years old as a company, Qualitas’s specialty is first and foremost algae farming. From that algae, it produces vegan omega-3 supplements, with a strength in EPA that Dr. White claims is unique; “currently the majority of algae-produced omega 3s are either exclusively DHA or very heavily DHA; we’ve focused on an algae that only makes EPA.” It is also looking at the protein potential: she claims that the Nannochlorpsis biomass the company is producing is about 40% protein (ash-free dry weight) and has an interesting profile of essential and branched chain amino acids. However, it doesn’t see a direct role for itself in the animal nutrition industry, preferring instead to partner with others. A company called NBO3 Technologies, which buys Nannochlorpsis from Green Stream farms, is currently serving as the final link connecting this algae production concept with the animal feed industry. According to a spokesperson for NBO3 (which stands for “naturally better omega-3”), the use of a feeding protocol including these ingredients can result in beef, pork, chicken, and egg products with substantially higher omega-3 levels, benefiting the final human consumer, as well as improving the health of the animal itself and any offspring. NBO3 Technologies is currently focused on commercialization of both these meat products and the “greatoOFeed” proprietary feeding system behind them.
Meanwhile, Qualitas’s products have not yet found their way into commercial aquaculture feeds, Dr. White says, but it is partnered with an another firm to compete in the Fish-Free Feed (F3) challenge which seeks to promote the development of aquaculture feeds free of fishmeal and fish oil. They even see potential for their algae solutions to be used to improve the health of companion animals, although again this would be through partnerships and not through Qualitas’s own entry into this market. “[Animal nutrition] needs new and different ingredients, and we know how to produce something new and highly beneficial for those markets.”