Farming and processing microalgae to address Vitamin B12 deficiency

Malnourishment is a global challenge, with undernutrition contributing to almost half of all deaths in children under 5. Although there is a worldwide problem with imbalanced nutrition, it is particularly adverse in developing countries. Micronutrients are elements that are needed, albeit in small amounts, for normal growth and development of humans. Deficiency of micronutrients such as Vitamin B12 is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent having significant effects such as stunted growth. Supplementation or fortification of foodstuffs to alter diets can have significant impact.

The technology the i-Team focused on demonstrates that Vitamin B12 can be released by bacteria when grown in co-culture with algae. Algae can support bacterial growth without the need to add energy sources and, because they provide a carbon source to bacteria, the relationship is mutually dependent. If algae are grown with bacteria such as the bacterium Chlorella, it accumulates high levels of B12. Transferring these findings into algal farming techniques could result in considerable sustainable impact.

There are two models for algal cultivation: the Integrated Village System (IVS) and the giant open-pond system, both used in Togo and Burkina Faso. Contemporary projects demonstrate that implementing these models can empower communities, be upscaled accordingly, and demonstrate marketisation. Algal farming can be connected to solar-powered pond paddlewheels which means that the byproducts of B12 farming can be multi-functional, such as producing biomass.

Looking at the application of algae cultivation in Togo and Burkina Faso, encouraged the i-Team to explore the role of the government; educating about deficiency needs (cultural acceptance), training (production, packaging, and handling distribution channels), quality assurance systems (Ministry of Health), and manage exports.

The i-Team then looked at farmed fisheries for indications of success. In industrial aquaculture, fish feed has moved from smaller wild caught fish, which was very unsustainable, to crustaceans fed on algae. These crustaceans have been proven to grow significantly better when fed with algae that have high levels of Vitamin B12. The team proposed using a similar method of cultivating microalgae to address micronutrient deficiencies to that utilised by the NGO WorldFish. This method could help with addressing rural areas and vegetarians, which are not covered very well by existing food fortification programmes and fisheries respectively.

The team talked to existing organisations for advice and examples of successful project implementations. Helen Keller International’s village model farms, where they teach women the best techniques to grow micronutrient dense foods are sustainable examples. There are questions of water pollution, land availability, and ease of continued monitoring highlighted by the projects, so these need to be considered when trying to establish local microalgae production. The International Food Policy Research Institute has expressed interest in the research proposing the possibility of working with them in the future.

The team are keen to follow through with the project, and found two potential test sites, both of which are in India. One potential test site is through the RAMA Foundation who work in Rishikesh. The second potential test site is through the Village Ways Charitable Trust, who work with the people of the villages of Saryu Valley. Both sites have facilities which can be adapted or work in partnership with algal farming, and both are keen to promote proper nutrition.

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Farming and processing microalgae to address Vitamin B12 deficiency