10 Non-Human Alchemists I: Algae

We were not the first species to terraform earth. Around 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) began to produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, wiping out the majority of nitrogen-dependent lifeforms and triggered the first ice age. This event has been referred to variously as the Oxygen Catastrophe, the Oxygen Crisis, the Oxygen Holocaust, and the Oxygen Revolution. It was the first planetary extinction event. Many scientists believe we are now living through the sixth.

Algae wasn’t always destructive. It is believed to have precipitated the Cambrian Explosion. “This rise in algae happens just around the time the first animals appeared on the scene,” scientist Jochen Brocks told the BBC. “It was algae at the bottom of the food web that created this burst of energy and nutrients that allowed larger and more complex creatures to evolve.”

Blue-green algae has already transformed the planet may soon do so again. Humans are expected to consume more food in the next fifty years than in the previous 10,000 and the one million species of algae believed to exist will play a central role as we rise to this task. Algae is a vitamin, mineral, omega-3 and phytonutrient-rich food source that can be grown in all weathers and harvested year round.

In Moscow, spirulina has been successfully trialled as a means to filter river. In Copenhagen it forms the main input for a range of speciality caviar. Oil deposits formed on the sites of ancient canals in which layers upon layers of algae decomposed, subject to heat and pressure over millions of years. As the fossil fuel industry unpacks that compression at hyperspeed – perhaps the food system could provide an alternative? First, we must expand our definition of farming to include practices like algaculture. If the dark magic of the existing food system can be seen most clearly in its ability to reformulate and distribute inputs like corn syrup and soy as primary ingredients, the food system to come will be capable of transforming and circulating a multitude of new dishes and cultures formed from more nutritious and resilient biomatter like algae.