While spirulina is a superfood for Western consumers, it’s used to fight malnutrition in developing countries. Photo: flickr

While spirulina is a superfood for Western consumers, it’s used to fight malnutrition in developing countries. Photo: flickr

Tess Riley writes in TheGuardian.com about how spirulina may be able to combat malnutrition in developing countries. Spirulina is one of the oldest life forms on Earth, consisting of unicellular organisms that use light, warmth, water and minerals to produce protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and other vital nutrients. The resultant edible bacteria are one of the most concentrated foods on earth, noted for being excellent sources of all eight essential amino acids as well as ten of the twelve nonessential amino acids, beta carotene, minerals such as iron, and gamma-linoleic acid amongst others.

A key benefit of spirulina is its high protein content. While accessing good quality protein is not hard for those who live in the West, the same cannot be said for those living in poverty in developing countries. In her paper on food security in the context of a growing demand for protein, Dr. Hanna Tuomisto calculates that the algae (along with ‘in vitro’ meat) has the lowest land use per unit of protein and unit of human digestible energy. In other words, it offers the potential to improve food security while also benefitting the environment by requiring less land to produce the same amount of protein and energy as livestock.

In light of spirulina’s gamut of nutritional goodness, a number of individuals and organizations are developing spirulina programs to address malnutrition. Antenna India, for example, provides children at risk of malnourishment with spirulina sweets, and trains other NGOs and small enterprises to start their own local production for the same purpose. They also offer low cost spirulina to women in self-help groups who are taking part in microcredit programs, which enables the participants to make a profit selling the protein-rich algae while raising awareness about malnutrition.

Dutch organization Antenna Spirulina supports Antenna India through sales of spirulina to European customers. At present, it is cultivated and turned into pills in India before being shipped to the Netherlands where it is packaged, although they hope to transfer the packaging activities to India too in the near future.

The spirulina is bought at above market price, and profits from the sale of the pills are reinvested in the malnutrition programs in India, as well as in training and creating new spirulina ponds. Although these latter two goals remain priorities at present, Antenna Spirulina hopes to reach its goal of being able to purchase one gram for malnutrition programs in India for each gram sold through its website before long.

A spirulina production site in Madurai, southern India. Photo: Daniel Polman

A spirulina production site in Madurai, southern India. Photo: Daniel Polman

As Antenna India’s work suggests, spirulina not only offers nutritional benefits but is also a means to help bring economic independence to individuals in rural communities. In particular, production empowers rural women both through their employment in cultivating the algae and in secondary activities such as manufacturing packaging.

Development professional Amy Sheppey says this is a much more stable job than the traditional rice paddy work that employs women in Pondicherry, southeast India, where she spent six months working with Sharana Social and Development Organization. “The women cultivating spirulina are paid a fair wage – about double in comparison to rice paddy workers – and the job is much less physically strenuous,” she says. “What’s more, the work is not dependent on good weather conditions and the women are not left vulnerable through intermittent employment. Considering spirulina’s numerous benefits, I question to this day why it is not used more widely across the development sector.”

This last point is one echoed by Dr Urs Heierli,  who suggests that the lack of widespread political support to date comes down to a misguided set of priorities. “Political forces and their international institutions do not, it seems, consider hunger as intolerable and as a major human problem. Malnourished children are not seen as future voters and many politicians appear to have other priorities. The food industry was also not interested in fighting malnutrition, in the past at least, as this struggle has not seemed to be profitable.”

Heierli’s comments tie in with a much broader unsettling truth about global food supply, which is that to date we have produced enough food to feed the world. In other words, malnutrition and acute hunger are not problems of availability, but of access and inequality.

Spirulina offers a profitable, ecologically sound way of producing food that can benefit local rural economies. However, until we address the root causes of the inequalities that perpetuate uneven global food distribution, spirulina will remain a fancy nutrition supplement for Westerners who already have plenty to eat.