A review on culture, production and use of spirulina as food for humans and feeds for domestic animals

FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular. No. 1034

A review on culture, production and use of spirulina
as food for humans and feeds for domestic animals

M. Ahsan B. Habib
Mashuda Parvin
Department of Aquaculture
Bangladesh Agricultural University
Mymensingh, Bangladesh

Tim C. Huntington
FAO Consultant

Mohammad R. Hasan
Aquaculture Management and Conservation Service
FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department
Rome, Italy

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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Rome 2008


Habib, M.A.B.; Parvin, M.; Huntington, T.C.; Hasan, M.R.
A review on culture, production and use of spirulina as food for humans and feeds for domestic animals
FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular. No. 1034. Rome, FAO. 2008. 33p.

Spirulina are multicellular and filamentous blue-green microalgae belonging to two separate genera Spirulina and Arthrospira and consists of about 15 species. Of these, Arthrospira platensis is the most common and widely available spirulina and most of the published research and public health decision refers to this specific species. It grows in water, can be harvested and processed easily and has significantly high macro- and micronutrient contents. In many countries of Africa, it is used as human food as an important source of protein and is collected from natural water, dried and eaten. It has gained considerable popularity in the human health food industry and in many countries of Asia it is used as protein supplement and as human health food. Spirulina has been used as a complementary dietary ingredient of feed for poultry and increasingly as a protein and vitamin supplement to aquafeeds.

Spirulina appears to have considerable potential for development, especially as a small-scale crop for nutritional enhancement, livelihood development and environmental mitigation. FAO fisheries statistics (FishStat) hint at the growing importance of this product. Production in China was first recorded at 19 080 tonnes in 2003 and rose sharply to 41 570 tonnes in 2004, worth around US$7.6 millions and US$16.6 millions, respectively. However, there are no apparent figures for production in the rest of the world. This suggests that despite the widespread publicity about spirulina and its benefits, it has not yet received the serious consideration it deserves as a potentially key crop in coastal and alkaline areas where traditional agriculture struggles, especially under the increasing influence of salination and water shortages.

There is therefore a role for both national governments – as well as intergovernmental organizations – to re-evaluate the potential of spirulina to fulfill both their own food security needs as well as a tool for their overseas development and emergency response efforts. International organization(s) working with spirulina should consider preparing a practical guide to small-scale spirulina production that could be used as a basis for extension and development methodologies. This small-scale production should be orientated towards: (i) providing nutritional supplements for widespread use in rural and urban communities where the staple diet is poor or inadequate; (ii) allowing diversification from traditional crops in cases where land or water resources are limited; (iii) an integrated solution for waste water treatment, small-scale aquaculture production and other livestock feed supplement; and (iv) as a shortand medium-term solution to emergency situations where a sustainable supply of high protein/high vitamin foodstuffs is required.

A second need is a better monitoring of global spirulina production and product flows. The current FishStat entry which only includes China is obviously inadequate and the reason why other countries are not included investigated. Furthermore, it would be beneficial if production was disaggregated into different scales of development, e.g. intensive, semi-intensive and extensive. This would allow a better understanding of the different participants involved and assist efforts to combine experience and knowledge for both the further development of spirulina production technologies and their replication in the field. A third need is to develop clear guidelines on food safety aspects of spirulina so that human health risks can be managed during production and processing. Finally, it would be useful to have some form of web-based resource that allows the compilation of scientifically robust information and statistics for public access. There are already a number of spirulina-related websites (e.g. www.spirulina.com, www.spirulinasource.com) – whilst useful resources, they lack the independent scientific credibility that is required.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction and Scope

2. Historical Background on the Use of Spirulina as Human Food and Animal Feed


2.1 Historical Use


2.2 Rediscovery of Spirulina

3. General Characteristics of Spirulina


3.1 Morphology and Taxonomy


3.2 Natural Habitat, Source and Growth


3.3 Biochemical Composition

4. Cultivation and Production of Spirulina


4.1 Natural Production


4.2 Laboratory Cultivation


4.3 Small-scale Commercial Production of Spirulina


4.4 Commercial and Mass Cultivation


4.5 Examples of Production around the World


4.6 Harvesting and Processing

5. Products, Uses and Benefits for Humans, Fish and other Animals


5.1 Spirulina and its Use by Humans


5.2 Food Safety Aspects Related to Human Consumption of Spirulina


5.3 Spirulina and Agriculture


5.4 Spirulina and Aquaculture


5.5 Recent Development and Future Outlook


5.6 Potential Use as a Nutritional Supplement in Humanitarian Emergencies

6. Conclusions and Recommendations


6.1 Conclusions


6.2 Recommendations

7. References

Appendix A: Additional readings

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