Why do we need an EU Algae Initiative?

A growing global population, the depletion of resources, environmental pressures, and the impact of climate change require a different approach to food and economic systems. For this to happen, it is essential to develop new and sustainable ways of feeding a rapidly growing global population. The EU Algae Initiative aims to contribute to that by making wider use of the vast and too little used resource that is the seas and the oceans – currently the source of only up to 2% of human food, despite covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface.

The European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Sustainable Blue Economy Communication identified farmed seafood as a low-carbon source of food and feed. In addition to food and animal feed applications, algae have a growing number of potential commercial uses: pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, plant bio-stimulants, bio-packaging, cosmetics and biofuels.

Despite the many possible applications algae can offer, the seaweed industry in Europe is still very much at an embryonic stage, mainly focused on the harvesting of seaweed from the wild rather than cultivation in aquaculture. With the EU Algae Initiative, the Commission wants to unlock the potential of the EU algae sector, supporting the development of upscaled regenerative algae cultivation and production. Such an industry may harness the potential of vast European seas, but also of production on land, while creating jobs for local communities also beyond coastal areas, producing healthy low-carbon products, regenerating coastal ecosystems (e.g. fixing CO2 and nutrients and generating oxygen), and providing ecosystem services.

Could algae play a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and in fighting pollution? Is there evidence on their carbon uptake?

Macroalgae have the ability to absorb CO2 from the ocean, can help to alleviate  the pressure of climate change on marine ecosystems, and have the capacity to dissipate the impact of waves and thus help prevent coastal erosion. They can also absorb excess nutrients and organic material and thus play a role in addressing water pollution.

Currently, the Commission is conducting several studies on the potential of algae to contribute to climate change mitigation. The Algae and Climate study, for example, looks into costs, impact and benefits of scaling up production of marine algae through aquaculture in the EU.

As part of the EU Algae Initiative, the Commission will conduct a study by the end of 2025 to gain better knowledge of seaweed climate change mitigation opportunities and the role of seaweed as blue carbon sinks.

Will the EU algae initiative help find solutions to toxic algae growth in polluted waters?

Seaweed grows without the need of fertilisers. It absorbs excess inorganic nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous released by agriculture. Therefore, seaweed aquaculture can play a major role in mitigating coastal eutrophication (i.e. the excessive amount of nutrients in water which leading to plant growth suffocating other organisms), enriching coastal waters with oxygen and reducing the risk of toxic algae blooms.

The EU Algae initiative proposes a relevant action to reduce dependence on organic fertilizers, promoting a broader use of algae-based plant bio-stimulants.

In addition to the targeted action identified in the EU Algae Initiative, innovation will also be crucial in finding solutions to toxic algae blooms. The EU-funded project AlgaeService, for example, is looking into ways to turn toxic algae blooms into business opportunities. The project intended to test two prototype algae and cyanobacteria harvesting machines in real-world conditions on rivers, lakes and the Curonian Lagoon. The collected material will be used to produce biogas, fertilisers and other products on a small-scale.

Is there enough marine space to designate to algae cultivation?

The EU Member States do not always indicate the integration of algae farming in their Maritime Spatial Plans. This poses an obstacle to assess the uptake of algae aquaculture around Europe. However, algae cultivation is an upcoming concept, and there are ongoing efforts to increase its visibility within the blue economy.

The European coastal regions have been recognised as a fertile ground for the algae sector to thrive. For example, the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea have ideal natural conditions for seaweed cultivation. Researchers believe also that Europe has more vast areas suitable for seaweed farming.

The EU funds several pilot projects on algae farming, like algae cultivation in a multi-use setting with wind farms. More information on the projects can be found on the EU MSP Platform.

How much is currently invested in the EU? How much funding would be needed to get the algae sector off the ground in Europe?

Commission’s financial support to algae sector is not new, as at least 300 algae-related projects so far have been supported (for example through the 2014-2020 European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), the LIFE Programme, INTERREG and others). EU Research framework programme Horizon 2020 alone has funded 116 projects with an EU contribution of €273 million. The EU financial support to the algae sector is expected to only grow.

The Commission has created together with the European Investment Fund a large-scale Equity Fund “InvestEU Blue Economy” that will mobilise €500 million of EU funds between 2021-2027 resulting in up to €1,5 billion of risk-finance for innovative and sustainable blue economy SMEs and start-ups. This is partly relevant to the algae sector as there are, for example, 21 algae-related projects in the current Blue Invest project pipeline where SMEs are directly linked to more than 400 investors.

To implement the actions envisaged in this Communication, funding has been earmarked for instance under the Horizon Europe programme and the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF), while some algae-related actions in Horizon Europe have already been closed or are ongoing. The Commission will continue to look into opportunities for algae-related actions funding.

What has been done so far by the Commission to unlock algae potential in Europe?

At the end of 2019, the Blue Bioeconomy Forum published the Roadmap for the Blue Bioeconomy, after consulting around 300 relevant stakeholders. The Roadmap made recommendations in four main areas: (1) policy, environment and regulations; (2) finance and business development; (3) consumers and value chains and (4) science, technology and innovation. The Roadmap concluded also that the development of algae cultivation in Europe has been hindered by factors such as high production costs, low-scale production, fragmented governance framework, limited knowledge of the markets, consumers’ needs, and the risks and environmental impacts of algae cultivation.

In recent years (2021-2023), the Commission has launched and supported several algae-related initiatives, which are currently in an implementation or planning phase. These include the European Algae Stakeholder Platform called EU4Algae, EU research and innovation funds‘ calls for applications, the Bio-Based Europe Joint Undertaking, investments in the algae sector made possible by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, blue economy-related business support mechanisms (Blue Invest, the new-born Aquaculture Assistance Mechanism).

Many EU initiatives tackle the lack of knowledge on algae. Among them the European Marine Data and Observation Network has mapped the European algae companies, the Commission’s Knowledge Centre for the Bioeconomy created a knowledge hub on algae biomass, the Joint Research Centre released an extensive algae biomass study.