Lower Rio Grande, New Mexico
Farming Revolution: Growing Algae in Southern New Mexico | Luna County
According to United States census data, households in New Mexico have the fifth-lowest median income among all 50 states.1US Census Bureau, 2015-2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Climate change will likely exacerbate the state’s economic challenges: Threatened with a drier and hotter climate, the overall agricultural sector, a major economic driver in the region, is in a dire position. But some farmers, drawn to the area’s affordable and abundant vacant land, have found a perfect ecosystem in New Mexico.
Only half a mile north from the border, close to the town of Columbus, Qualitas Health grows algae using less than a tenth of the land needed to produce an equivalent amount of biomass through traditional agricultural means. As Miguel Calatayud, the company’s CEO, says in a Forbes magazine interview, “[Algae] grows on non-productive and non-arable land, so it doesn’t compete with other crops for land. Because it doesn’t require freshwater, it can be fertilized more efficiently than land crops, and you can avoid the intensive water usage, wasteful fertilizer runoff, and downstream eutrophication associated with modern agriculture.”2Jennifer Kite-Powell, “See How Algae Could Change Our World,” Forbes, June 15, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2021.
The algae produced at Qualitas Health’s farms is utilized to produce plant-based protein and Omega-3 that the company commercializes as supplements. Beyond the food industry, the algae can also be used as part of a number of biomaterials used in the fashion sector to produce sneakers and other garments.
In this interview, Calatayud explains why some call his business a farming revolution and how the algae industry could benefit New Mexico and other arid lands. —Ane González Lara, Diverse Peoples, Arid Landscapes, and the Built Environment report editor