BARKADRESSOU, 30 June 2010 (IRIN) – Donors hope spirulina, a blue-green, protein-packed algae, labelled a "wonderful future food source" 45 years ago by the International Association of Microbiology, will deliver on its promise by the time a US$1.7 million cultivation project in Chad, funded by the European Union (EU), ends in December 2010.
"It’s as close as we will get to a miracle food," said Mahamat Sorto, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officer managing the project. Aid agencies see the plant as a possible cheap solution to global malnutrition.
Health food stores in rich countries have promoted spirulina as an energy-enhancing supplement, but it has been eaten for centuries in various parts of the world.
The plant’s dry weight contains up to 70 percent of protein matter, based on chemical analyses from the French Oil Institute, university research laboratories in Malaysia and Bangladesh, and the Siam Algae company, a Thai commercial group.
A 2008 FAO position paper on spirulina reads like a commercial brochure: "An easily digestible high (c. 60 percent) protein product with high levels of B-carotene, vitamin B12, iron and trace minerals, and the rare essential fatty acid y-linolenic acid [also called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), or omega-6]".
FAO noted that spirulina cultivation had "a small environmental footprint" with low water needs, production could take place in salty conditions that would kill other crops, and there were no "obvious negative cultural or religious issues associated with its consumption".
One drawback. In Chad’s northern Kanem region, spirulina grower Hereta Taher told IRIN that some people found the taste jarring. "It might seem bitter at first, but you get used to it."
So why is it not spilling out of market stalls, distributed in nutrition therapy centres instead of Plumpy’nut and feeding people in the planting season, when the previous harvest’s food stocks have been depleted?