There is hope Spirulina could be the newest earner for the primary sector - bringing in more than $100 million a year.
A project is underway exploring the potential of farming the algae, with the goal of creating a full commercial-scale production.
Currently, there is only one farm in New Zealand cultivating the algae -Tahi Spirulina, in Himatangi, Manawatu - but that could change if the project is successful.
The project is looking at scaling production to test new growing and processing systems. It also seeks to build on the existing base of knowledge about spirulina production to grow a more nutritional product.
Benoit Guieysse, co-owner of Tahi Spirulina, says New Zealand is an excellent location for growing the algae, meaning there is plenty of potential for the industry.
"Growing algae is a bit like growing grass, and New Zealand, as we know, is a very good country for growing grass - you have the right balance between sun and water."
Nelson/Tasman, Hawke's Bay, Bay of Plenty and Northland have all been identified as regions that could be especially suitable for growing.
Justin Hall, director of NZ Algae Innovations Ltd, says with a number of other countries around the world already producing the algae, the challenge would be to "find that sustainable point of difference that would make our spirulina a uniquely New Zealand product".
"We want to understand what consumers are looking for, and whether taking spirulina in powder or capsule form is working for them. Our research so far has included looking at how to incorporate spirulina into a range of added value food products. We've already been experimenting with creating whole dried spirulina sprinkles, which taste nutty – a bit like nori [dried seaweed], with the intent of attracting new consumers," he said.
The project began in October 2019 and will run until November next year. It has recently received $390,000 in funding from NZ Algae Innovations and $260,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) SFF Futures fund.
Hall said the project would also explore ways of maintaining more nutrient content in spirulina by developing different harvesting and processing methods using techniques from other industries.
Producers also tout the algae's low carbon and water footprint.
Spirulina is cultivated in ponds or natural lakes and then harvested and dried. It can be grown on most land types, even those of marginal quality.
At Tahi Spirulina the algae is grown in a contained system that minimises evaporation and prevents leaching.
"It doesn't really matter what's underneath, so we can grow it on very low-productive sandy soil - as long as we've got a bit of sun, we're fine," says Guieysse.
According to research from NZ Algae Innovations, a one-hectare spirulina farm could contain 6000 square metres of ponds as well as ancillary service facilities and produce 3 kilograms per square metre, or 18,000 kilograms per hectare, per annum. With spirulina composed of around 65 percent protein by weight, that would be equal to 11,700 kilograms of protein per hectare per year.
NZ Algae Innovations says apart from producing the algae at a commercial scale, the challenge would be to create demand for value-added products featuring New Zealand-grown spirulina.
"If that can be achieved, a 200-300 hectare production base could provide a benefit of more than $100 million to New Zealand through export revenue or reduced agricultural imports."