he Green Friendship Bridge project proposes building algae microfarms that will be sprinkled across Mexico and Central America. The microfarms will enable farmers and families to grow algae-based food, feed, biofertilizers and healthy nutritional products locally on tiny land footprints so they can stay in their homes and not be forced by economics to migrate.
Microfarmers south of the U.S. border are likely to choose to grow spirulina because this 3.5-billion-year old plant is indigenous to the region. Indigenous spirulina typically outperforms cultures from algae libraries or institutions because the local spirulina has invested eons in adapting to the local microclimate.
Desert-adapted species thrive in normal years and survive when their pond habitats evaporate. Rather than die when the weather goes bad, as land plants do, algae cells simply go into a dormant state. Algae can survive on rocks as hot as 70o C, (160o F). In this dormant condition, the naturally blue-green algae turn a frosty white cake and develop a sweet flavor. Intense heat transforms its 70% protein structure into polysaccharide sugars.
Joan Myers, a dear friend and phenomenal photographer for National Geographic, documents extreme environments such as ice floes and volcanoes. Her latest book, Fire and Ice is amazing. Joan told me a fascinating story. She and a scientist were pulling cores from below the snow and ice sheet in the 17-million-year-old Beacon Valley Antarctica. When they returned to the lab, they removed a rock millions of years old and cracked it open. What did they find? Dormant blue-green algae.
Spirulina may have a Biblical history too. I proposed in prior Algae101 posts that the “manna” of the wandering Israelites in the Bible may have been spirulina or lichen, an alga – fungi symbiant. The product appeared miraculously each morning on rocks with the dew. Manna was described as tasting “like wafers made with honey.” This is consistent with the taste of spirulina scraped off of hot rocks (that have cooled).
Spirulina thrives in very warm waters of 32 to 45o C, (approximately 85 to 112 o F), and has even survived in temperatures of 60 o C, (140 o F). Growers at high altitudes may find their cultures are productive possibly 6 – 8 months of the year. Some growers use greenhouses to extend the growing season. Others use LED grow lights and water heaters to produce year round.
The fresh-water lakes, ponds and commercial cultures spirulina favors are quite alkaline, in the range of 8 to 11 pH. The high alkalinity diminishes competition from other microorganisms. Freshwater spirulina can adapt to brine, (salty) and even seawater. Some microfarmers use wastewater where the algae recover and recycle the waste nutrients. These growers may target animal feed or biofertilizer with their production because food-grade algae must have near-zero contaminants.
Spirulina’s unique ability to grow in hot and alkaline environments ensures its hygienic status. Other contaminating microorganisms cannot survive to compete with spirulina for nutrient and photon (solar) resources. Spirulina is one of the cleanest, most naturally sterile foods found in nature.
Shelf life and nutritional retention are critical for foods. Most plant and animal foods deteriorate very quickly at high temperatures. Shrimp, for example, offer a highly dense nutrient food package, largely because they are what they eat: algae. Both the shrimp meat and nutrients sour within minutes in the sun. Spirulina’s adaption to heat allows the cells to go dormant when heat stress occurs so it can regenerate and begin quickly propagating again when good growing conditions return. Spirulina biomass retains its nutritional value when subject to high temperatures during growing, harvest, processing and storage.
Spirulina cells are extremely large for a single-celled organism, attaining sizes of 0.5 millimeters in length. This is about 100 times the size of most other algae. Some individual spirulina cells are visible to the naked eye but studying a culture requires a microscope.
Spirulina’s prolific cellular reproductive capacity and their proclivity to adhere and form spiral colonies make spirulina a large and easily harvested green biomass. Indigenous people harvested spirulina using baskets to sweep the biomass off the surface of the water. Today, microfarmers typically use a fine mesh sieve to filter the spirals out of the water.
Spirulina is a “nuclear plant,” on the developmental crossroad between plants and animals. It is considered above plants because it does not have the hard cellulose membranes characteristic of plant cells. Spirulina does not have a well-defined nucleus, hence its classification as a cyanobacteria.
Spirulina’s metabolic system is typical of plant life forms based on photosynthesis. Spirulina produces direct food energy similar to other plants utilizing sunlight and chlorophyll. Spirulina embodies the simplest form of life. In contrast, other algae such as chlorella have developed the hard, largely indigestible walls characteristic of plants.
Friendship Bridge farmers may choose to grow spirulina, another algae species or a local indigenous algae adapted to the specific microclimate. A 2015 review article on the nutritional value of Australian microalgae for human health found that Australian native microalgal species Scenedesmus sp., Nannochloropsis sp., Dunaliella sp., and a chlorophytic polyculture have great potential as multi-nutrient human health supplements. These algae species can also be found in Mexico and Central America where growing conditions are similar. Global research shows that microfarmers have many algae species they may choose to grow, each offering unique target compounds.
Most microfarmers begin growing spirulina because decades of experience are available on optimal growing, harvesting and making valuable bioproducts.
The visual image of green growing systems supporting families and community trumps an ugly border wall. The border wall is an expensive, passive edifice that does not align with U.S. values. The wall is an embarrassment for many Americans. It creates a porous barrier to illegal immigrants who can go over, under, around and through at various points.
An algae microfarm provides a beautiful green image of self-sufficiency. Microfarms are active, productive growing systems that support families and communities. Microfarms can be sited on tiny non-cropland footprints such as backyards, rooftops, parking lots, train right-of-ways, rocky areas, wasteland and deserts.
Microfarms give growers the liberty to grow healthy and delicious nutrients and foods for their families and communities. Growers have the freedom to produce a wide range of valuable bioproducts including healthy omega-3 fatty acids, nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals. Other growers may produce animal feeds that improve the health, coats and vitality of their animals. Julius Caesar’s armies fed algae to their horses to improve the sheen in their coats as well as their stamina.
Many areas are not suitable for farming due to geography, soils or climate. Microfarmers can grow food nearly anywhere there is sunshine. Local food production enables farmers to stay in their community and not be forced to migrate. Advanced growers can supplement solar energy with high-efficiency LED lighting using controlled environment agriculture.
Microfarms, also called green solar gardens, provide an excellent opportunity for training people throughout the region in sustainable farming practices. Microfarms are learning environments where lateral learning thrives as microfarmers share their insights and experience.
Microfarms can learn to produce Freedom Foods that use no or minimal fossil resources including fertile soil, fresh water, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers or agriculture poisons. Freedom Foods are sustainable, leave the environmental footprint of a butterfly and preserve valuable natural resources for future generations.
Youth unemployment is high in many regions. Algae microfarms do not require heavy labor, which enables youth, handicapped and the elderly to grow heathy food. Microfarm training is immediately transferable to traditional forms of agriculture, which make microfarms an excellent training environment. Some microfarmers expand production beyond algae to microgreens and hydroponic vegetables. Others expand their systems to grow fish in aquaculture systems where algae provide the food for the fish.
Social benefits summary
The Green Friendship Bridge project benefits from the ability of spirulina and other algae species to grow quickly in microfarms. Microfarms provide a far superior picture compared with an ugly border wall. Microfarms provide a beautiful picture of sustainable self-sufficiency that brings joy to families and communities.
Microfarms can serve as learning environments for sustainable food production. The Friendship Bridge Cooperative that networks growers can provide strong lateral learning. Champions may create training programs at local schools and colleges to expand the knowledge about local food production.
The next post examines the substantial Green Friendship Bridge health benefits.