by Juan Scaliter
“One of the greatest challenges in agriculture is to increase food production to meet the demands of an ever-growing population,” says Tiago Andrade managing director of Grupo Hubel, a Portuguese plant nutrition and management company participating in Europe’s REALM Project. “But we also must establish a sustainable approach to agriculture and reduce the use of harmful products. These are the key challenges of agriculture in the future.”
According to a new report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), humans across the planet are at a crossroads in managing droughts. In 2022, more than 2.3 billion people faced water scarcity, and almost 160 million children were exposed to severe and prolonged droughts. Unless we take action, in 25 years over three-quarters of the world’s population will be affected by water shortages.
This is where microalgae come into play. Microalgae can grow quickly and in very diverse environments, of which the REALM project (Reusing Effluents from Agriculture to unLock the potential of Microalgae) takes advantage. The initiative is led by European microalgae researchers, agricultural producers, and technology experts.
“REALM aims to reuse drain water from greenhouses and hydroponics to produce microalgae that will clean and treat the water,” says Mr. Andrade. “Then, with these microalgae, we’ll produce sustainable bio-stimulants and bio-fertilizers for agriculture that can also increase output. This is critical because we often suffer from water shortages here in Portugal.”
But it is not just water that is reused. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients are added to irrigation water. Otherwise, the plants suffer from deficiency symptoms and their yields decline. However, some of these nutrients are not absorbed by plants and end up washed into rivers and lakes, degrading the water quality.
According to a 2018 report by the European Environmental Agency, only one-third of European surface waters were of good quality, and agriculture was one of the biggest polluters. Nitrates are the primary pollutant, affecting 18% of groundwater. If nutrient levels are very high, wild plants and algae bloom, creating “dead zones” where oxygen is scarce, and fish and other animals fight to survive. Microalgae, however, can help fix these problems, as their need for nitrogen and other nutrients can be used for beneficial results.
“The water used in hydroponic farming is full of nutrients and can be used as a resource that works in two ways,” says João Navalho, marine biologist and the current president of the board of Necton — the microalgae production company that coordinates REALM. “First, we protect the environment by recycling [the water]. Second, by providing nutrients — something that microalgae producers normally pay for — we reduce expenses. Not to mention that more and healthier goods can be produced.”
“Basically, we are taking a waste product and adding value to it,” says Mr. Andrade. “And the [REALM] project also has a critical side: it brings together knowledge from different areas of Europe; it brings us together in a project and a common goal.”
The science behind REALM is not only a theory but is already in practice in Portugal. Near the facilities of the Hubel Verde company, a ten thousand square meter facility will be built. There, microalgae will be cultivated in the wastewater that Hubel Verde itself generates during the cultivation of berries.
With the help of sensors and artificial intelligence, the entire system can be automated to make production even more efficient and cost-effective. In addition, Hubel Verde will test the bio-stimulants and bio-fertilizers that REALM develops as sustainable alternatives in agriculture. And Portugal is not alone. The same set-up is also being tested in Spain, while work in smaller dimensions is being carried out in the Netherlands and Finland.
“We have partners already introducing microalgae on a pilot scale in Finland,” says Mr. Navalho. “And it is working. In addition, we have another smaller project that proves this is possible. We’re currently working on making it happen at a demonstration scale. If this is proven (successful) in the future, we’ll replicate what we are doing now. And in this way, we might find a scientific answer to the future of agriculture in Europe.”
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