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Phyta, Inc.

Phyta is tackling climate change, food security, and human health with sustainable ocean farming.

Photo of Eliza Harrison
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Climate change portends a growing threat to the world’s burdened agricultural and food systems. Long practiced but increasingly unsustainable agricultural techniques and technologies are highly damaging to soils, ecosystems, waterways, and economic health. The solution is not to pursue unsustainable traditional approaches more aggressively, but rather to innovate new food supply systems.

In response to land-based agricultural challenges, three students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) have taken preliminary steps to design and implement Phyta: a model for macroalgae cultivation in temperate ocean water. Phyta’s growth strategy and integrated technologies are designed to provide a new source of protein, carbohydrates, salt, and other nutrients to the national and international communities.

Due to its chemical and physical properties, macroalgae would support the nutritional needs of a growing global population while simultaneously reducing the requirements for input resources. Providing protein sufficient to feed 10 billion people, for example, would reduce agricultural land requirements by 1,000,000 km2 and limit freshwater consumption by 500 km3 (Willem Brandenburg, Wageningen UR 2016). In doing so, Phyta would enhance overall food security in developing nations while reducing environmental stresses associated with agriculture.

Although Phyta is still in its pilot phase of development, large-scale macroalgae cultivation has the potential to support economic development in coastal communities through the marketing and sale of macroalgae for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, feedstock, and environmental remediation credits -- all of which are projected to become highly lucrative by 2022.

Ultimately, Phyta is a food production, economic development, and climate stabilization initiative with profound implications for the health of our fragile planet and the species that call it home.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

During its first phase, Phyta will boost economic development in coastal fishing communities in the Southeastern US by providing an alternative source of income. Similarly, Phyta will collaborate with various agricultural organizations to produce a healthy, sustainable, and cost-efficient form of animal feed. In addition to high levels of protein -- on par with soy or corn -- macroalgae contains vitamins, omega fatty acids, and other nutrients that improve animal health. Individuals who eat meat or dairy products from these animals would see improvements in their own nutritional health due to biomagnification.

Large-scale cultivation could also prove transformative for the larger sustainability of the planet. By virtue of their chemical and physical properties, macroalgae support carbon sequestration, reduce methane emissions from cows, and mitigate excess nutrient pollution in the marine environment. As a result, the global population will benefit from a healthier environment.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Although macroalgae cultivation is becoming increasingly popular in cold-water regions of the world, Phyta presents a transformative strategy to specifically support coastal communities within temperate latitudes. Over the course of the two-year pilot, Phyta will refine a rig structure that is simple and cost-efficient to install, allowing individuals with limited resources to pursue sustainable, effective, and environmentally beneficial farming strategies while supporting their economic interests.

Separately, our team members’ studies of environmental health science, marine science, and public policy give us a unique perspective on the dynamic field of macroalgae aquaculture. Our team has also received advising and financial support from five dedicated advisors at UNC and Duke University -- whose expertise range from environmental engineering to social entrepreneurship. Phyta also collaborates with two mentors who work in close proximity to our pilot site.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Phyta, Inc. is a social venture that tackles issues of climate change, food production, and human health with sustainable ocean farming.
https://phyta.org/

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Eliza Harrison attended the 2016 Bioneers Conference where she heard Bren Smith speak about integrating macroalgae into traditional aquaculture practices. Inspired by his approach, she became interested in algae cultivation as a strategy for carbon sequestration, methane reduction, and global food security. Since then, our team has dedicated eighteen months to project research, design and development. Most recently, our team was recognized as a semi-finalist for the 2018 Hult Prize.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

While Phyta will have a transformative impact on each of the three proposed topic areas, the most immediate impact of our work in macroalgae cultivation will be supporting lower-income community development and environmental stewardship. Recognizing that the majority of countries in temperate and tropical regions of the world fall victim to environmental degradation from the wealthiest countries, individuals could use macroalgae cultivation as a supplemental source of income amidst highly variable fish stocks.

With respect to environmental remediation, macroalgae cultivation sequesters five times more carbon than any land-based plant, serves as a strategy for agricultural waste remediation, and may reduce methane emissions from agricultural practices by 98.9% (Machado et al. 2014). By reducing the concentration of anthropogenic emissions in the atmosphere and marine environment, Phyta can also be regarded as a multidimensional and powerful approach to climate stabilization.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

Aside from a dedicated team of three young women, Phyta has established lasting connections with UNC, Duke University Marine Laboratory (DUML), and Morris Family Farms. Professors, entrepreneurs, and business advisors from schools under the UNC umbrella have played a critical role in Phyta’s early development as a for-profit organization. DUML has provided access to water quality monitoring equipment that Phyta will use to evaluate nutrient remediation associated with macroalgae cultivation. Finally, our organization will work most closely with Morris Family Farms -- a North Carolina-based oyster farm whose lease is home to the first algae farm in the state as of May of 2018. As Phyta moves forward in the months and years ahead, both organizations will engage in close collaboration through joint water-quality management, shared labor across the farms, and monitoring nutrient remediation.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Cape Lookout in North Carolina can be considered a coastal community heavily dependent on the marine environment through fishing and aquaculture. As a result, collaborating with local individuals will allow us to share knowledge and skills relating to working with macroalgae in the marine environment. Furthermore, the pilot farm is located in close proximity to a constant supply of nutrients, as well as in water whose chemical characteristics should support high levels of productivity.

Geographic Focus

The pilot will focus on the Southeastern U.S., whereas Phase II will expand internationally.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We expect the pilot phase to last two years. Having laid the cultivation rig’s structure in May of 2018, we will seed the growth lines this coming September with five species of macroalgae native to the North Carolina Coast. According to our projected timeline, we will complete our first harvest by June 2019. Armed with the results of the pilot farm, our team will modify the cultivation and processing strategy before expanding to other coastal communities on a national and international scale.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

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