Farming Revolution: Growing Algae in Southern New Mexico | Luna County
Miguel Calatayud believes that algae could be the future of agriculture in arid lands.
Ane González Lara interviewed Miguel Calatayud in 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Ane González Lara [AGL]: Can you start by telling us a bit about Qualitas Health’s farm in southern New Mexico? What do you harvest there and how do you do it?
Miguel Calatayud [ML]: We grow algae in the desert using non-arable land, saltwater or brackish water, and the sun as our main source of energy. We have two farms, one in Texas and one in New Mexico. The latter is right next to the Mexican border, close to Columbus, in a rural setting. Since the fifties, the population of Columbus had been decreasing. However, now people are coming back because there are jobs, there’s a new hotel, there’s a new store. We are bringing contractors there, so it is great to see how we are affecting the community in a positive way.
We also try to minimize the impact we create in the ecosystem of our farms. Our farm in Columbus was built thinking about creating a minimum impact in the land, and therefore we didn’t utilize concrete slabs or massive infrastructure, except for the small concrete footing that paddle wheels need to be anchored to. Other than that, our farm consists of ponds carved in the soil, covered in a food-grade liner to maintain the water and preserve the underground from filtrations. In our Texas farm, we don’t even need to use liners for the water to remain in place, as the soil has a significant content of clay. While we have a long commitment to carry out our farming in New Mexico and Texas for many years, if for some reason we had to get out of there, we would be able to turn the land back into the ecosystem leaving a minimum footprint.
In our farms, we grow a very unique type of algae called nannochloropsis. There are about 3,000 types of algae that we know about, and this one, in particular, is extremely interesting because, with a very small footprint, we can produce Omega-3 and protein. On top of that, it is a microscopic alga that is originally from the North Sea, so it needs saltwater.
The protein that we produce with this algae is very unique. It is a plant-based protein that has all the essential amino acids, and more total essential amino acids than egg and whey. Each of the essential amino acids found in the protein meets or exceeds the requirements of the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. Additionally, the productivity of essential amino acids is about 300 times more per acre per year than peas. Therefore, our 150 acres are equal to 45,000 acres of peas when looking at the production of essential amino acids. If we also factor in that we are not competing for land because we are growing our algae in non-arable land, the productivity goes through the roof.
When it comes to the use of water, even if we use saltwater we are very conscious of the use of this scarce resource. We have very unique harvesting equipment and technology that allows us to reuse 98% of the water over and over again, and we lose only 1% that goes into evaporation.
One of our main costs is CO2. We buy CO2, we inject it in order to facilitate photosynthesis, and we release oxygen.
We check all the boxes in terms of sustainability. We don’t use pesticides, so it’s a very clean and safe product, and we are also creating jobs in rural communities.
Our Omega-3 has the highest absorption in the market. The reason is that we produce it in a polar lipid form and your body absorbs it perfectly. We are the only ones in the world producing this type of Omega-3, and we have a patent until 2033. We have done clinical studies with over 100 people—placebo, double-blind—and we are significantly decreasing cholesterol levels and VLDL [very-low-density lipoprotein], which is bad cholesterol, in over 25 percent and 72 percent of the participants, respectively, so it’s something significant. We believe we can really make an impact in the US, helping people to be healthier without needing to use more expensive drugs that eventually come with side effects.
I do believe that what we are doing is really meaningful and significant. We are creating food and nutrients out of nowhere; we are creating jobs; we are using resources that otherwise would not be utilized; and we are creating products that are making an impact on thousands of peoples’ lives, both on the nutritional side and on the health side.
AGL: What do you think is the future of algae, and how do you see its consumption changing the way we eat?
MC: Our planet will go from having 7.5 billion people to 10 billion people by 2050, and one of the main challenges in the food production field is finding more freshwater and arable land. With this in mind, there is a big question: How are we going to feed all those people?
The answer is that we need to do more with less. We need to be more efficient and effective. In addition to that, I believe that we also need to use resources that otherwise would not be utilized.
As you well know, there is a huge movement worldwide towards plant-based nutrition as people feel the urgency to find alternatives to the way meat is consumed and produced globally. There needs to be a fundamental change in the food supply chain if we want to have sustained population growth. Vegetables are an answer, but they still consume a lot of arable land and a lot of fresh water, which are very scarce. As I have explained previously, algae is plant-based and uses resources that otherwise wouldn’t be used, like saltwater and non-arable land.
Beyond sustainability reasons, algae will change the food industry because of its properties. Our protein is extremely superior to pea protein in terms of essential total amino-acids, and the flavor is milder. We see algae replacing some of the existing ingredients that we find in our everyday food without anybody noticing it.
To answer your question, the use of algae is growing exponentially right now, and, in my opinion, within the next five years we are going to see algae in many places.
One thing that many people don’t know is that the byproduct that we don’t use is being utilized to produce biodegradable shoes and clothes.
AGL: Do you think this business could be affected by climate change or could be threatened by it?
MC: Yes, everybody is affected by climate change in one way or another.
The location of our farms in the desert is based on our need of significant hours of sun per year in order to produce and grow algae at the speed we need. There is a range of temperatures within which our farms can be located. Too much heat is a problem, and if the water freezes the paddle wheels will stop and the algae won’t grow, but as long as there aren’t too many days under 32 degrees we are fine. We need sun and saltwater, a salty aquifer, or brackish aquifer.
We need some specific conditions for our farms to be effective, and if those were to change dramatically we would be affected. However, our production is pretty resilient due to its little dependence on freshwater. Currently, we can grow algae on about 30 percent of the world’s surface.
AGL: Are you planning on growing your farm locations beyond New Mexico and Texas?
MC: Yes, we are. We are the only farm in the world growing nannochloropsis; many people tried and they failed. The Middle East could be a perfect place for our farms for its sunny climate and saltwater. We are also studying different markets like Australia, India, and Japan. Our strategy is to eventually produce in those areas of the world so our organic growth will make more algae farms all over the world with local partners.
Our goal is to create sustainable food solutions for everyone on our planet. In order to be consistent with that, we do it from every different angle, starting from the way we build our farms, the way we create jobs for rural and local communities, and the type of food we produce. We have also created a partnership with Ocean Unite, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to safeguard at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean by 2030. We are donating 1 percent of our sales to that organization.
There are many different angles a business can use to support our planet, our economy, and our communities, and this is what we try to do. We try to see our business not just as a way to make money but also as a way of generating value for all the partners in our community and in our economy.