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In this Nebraska town, superpowered algae is the latest cash crop

A new plant will make algae designed to feed farmed salmon, so we can stop overfishing the small fish we feed them now.

In this Nebraska town, superpowered algae is the latest cash crop
Veramaris, the joint venture of DSM and Evonik, held a topping-out ceremony on site in Blair, Nebraska. [Photo: Veramaris]

By now most eaters recognize the benefits of adding salmon to their diets. It’s a tasty, lean fish that’s rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also readily available: About 70% of the booming $175-billion global aquaculture industry is focused on salmon production.

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What’s less clear is the cost of our collective appetite. Farmed salmon fish rely on fish oil supplements to maintain the fatty acid levels that makes it an appealing dish. But those levels have been dropping in recent years because the fish oil—derived from smaller fish like menhaden—has become harder to source as our seas become more and more overfished.

That’s sparked a race for cost-efficient ways to sustainably source the supplement from another source: algae. A landlocked operation far from the ocean (in Blair, Nebraska), that opens this week will produce on an industrial scale a patented marine algal strain that’s rich in EPA and DHA, essential fatty acids that your body can’t make so it has to source through food (like salmon). Together, they’ve been shown to benefit heart, brain, and eye health.

The concept is being pioneered by Veramaris, a joint venture from two European companies: the Dutch life sciences company Royal DSM and German Chemical company Evonik, which produces an highly concentrated algal oil. The factory expects to offset the harvest of roughly 2.1 million metric tons of small fish for use as salmon food per year, roughly 15% of what the salmon aquaculture industry uses.

“Salmon farming or agriculture causes difficulties because it is dependent on wild catch fisheries,” says Veramaris CEO Karim Kurmaly. “This way we’re actually providing an alternative, enabling them to move away from their dependence on marine resources.”

There are plenty of other players in the non-fish-sourced omega-3 space, some using similar systems, others using giant pools or even using insects as the primary ingredient in the supplements. But Veramaris’s strain is particularly potent. It was originally developed by researchers at NASA, who thought that because marine algae can be fermented in a closed container without sunlight, it might be a way to supply nutrition to astronauts in space.

One of the NASA scientists who worked on the problem founded a private company that was eventually acquired by DSM. Veramaris’s improved upon the research to create a formula that can produce nearly 2.5 times the amounts of EPA and DHA compared to the same volumes of fish oil. “Obviously, because it’s more concentrated, it’s actually easier to handle,” he adds.

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The plant is also zero-waste: In Blair, the plant uses locally grown corn as a source of sugar to feed the algae and feed the leftover protein and nutrient rich mash to livestock. Veramaris initially piloted its research in 2017 at a smaller plant in South Carolina; in 2018, it added another brewing station in Slovakia. The difference is that while those plants can make hundreds of tons of oil per month, Kurmaly says the new one will easily yield at least several thousand.

The venture chose to locate the facility in Blair over other agricultural hubs because Evonik already had a facility there that produces lysine, a nutritional food supplement, so the site could be modified to serve for both purposes. Nebraska’s Department of Economic Development gave Veramaris a $400,000 matching grant for project capital because of the economic impact potential, which includes shipping and transportation jobs alongside some added jobs at the new plant.

The company is currently seeking GRAS or “generally recognized as safe” certification from the FDA to allow fish that are fed the ingredient to appear in local stores. Kurmaly expects that to happen by the end of 2019. In the meantime, Veramaris is already working with aquaculture operators in Norway and Chile whose harvests are committed to grocery chains like Kaufland in Germany and SuperMarche Match in France. More than 100 vendors are signed up to sell the fish so far.

Veramaris hasn’t shared exactly how its prices compare to traditional oil, except to say that because it’s concentrated it will be more expensive. Kurmaly expects that cost to be offset by the prices that retailers can command for fish that are nutritionally rich and part of a sustainable process. Many fish farmers are currently settling for lower quality feeds that have reduced the expected fatty acid per filet by as much as 50%. Aquaculture farmers may also benefit from maintaining better nourished stocks in another way. Researchers in Norway have found that diets rich in zinc and omega-3s may help young fish survive in these systems (which still have plenty of other flaws), so more remain hardy enough to actually reach the dinner plate.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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