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Hervé Balusson: algae is the sustainable food additive of the future

The rest of the world may have been slow to catch on, but seaweed and other algae have been dietary staples in China and Japan for centuries. These days, it's found in everything from sushi to cooking oil to cosmetics. And if Hervé Balusson has his way, it could be the key to saving the planet.

Hervé Balusson

Balusson is the founder of Olmix, a global biotechnology company with revenue over $180 million that transforms algae and other marine resources into safe, sustainable food additives for plants and animals. By engineering these oceanic by-products into a nearly unlimited source of high-value nutrition, Olmix hopes to drastically reduce our reliance on harmful chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics. "The sea is the largest crop field on the planet and also the most unexplored," Balusson says. "At Olmix, we focus our activities on plants and animals, but the range of possibilities for seaweed applications is wide and its extent is still unknown."

A lifetime pursuit

For Balusson, algae has been a lifelong obsession. He was born and raised on a pig farm in Brittany, a coastal region in the Northwest corner of France, where he saw first-hand the large numbers of antibiotics and chemicals his parents needed to raise the animals. As a young man, when he saw piglets suffering from digestive problems, he began experimenting with alternative feeds and treatments, including the algae strewn along the nearby beaches. "Shredded, crushed, and mixed with clay, I quickly realised that the algae had a strong effect on the pigs' digestion," he says.

Balusson founded Olmix in 1995, when he was 31, and chose to locate it in Brittany, an unusual choice for a company with global ambitions. But he says that as the largest farming region in France, Brittany has everything Olmix needs to advance its mission. "The unique position of the Brittany coasts makes it home to over 700 varieties of seaweed," he says. "And thanks to the nearby CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), we also have the most up-to-date scientists and researchers dedicated to algae science."

Two divisions, one mission

Today Olmix has 28 locations in 100 countries and 800 employees worldwide (12% of that workforce is dedicated to R&D, which accounts for Olmix's 24 patents). The company is divided into two — plant care and animal care — that pursue the same simple objective: producing more with less while improving food safety and respecting animals and the environment. Both divisions accomplish this mission in unique ways. The plant-care division sells natural products that improve soil structure and composition while enhancing the crops' natural resistance to environmental factors, which reduces the need for artificial fertilisers. The animal-care unit, Olmix's fastest-growing division, produces algae-based feed ingredients that help boost animal health defences and limit the need for antibiotics and synthetic additives.

Part of the solution

Changing how the world feeds everything — from pigs to produce — is no small task, and Balusson knows the road ahead is filled with obstacles. But he owes much of his success so far to a leadership philosophy rooted in inspiration and empowerment. To get people to help you accomplish your goals, he says, you have to give them a mission to believe in and the tools to make it happen. "I've always believed that leading is about inspiring people," he says. "No one becomes a leader if he's not able to build a strong team, empower each and every one of his employees, and make them feel that they have a strong role to play."

Balusson is so committed to empowering others that in 2015 he opened the Breizh Algae School, an institution that trains students and professionals in modern farming techniques free of antibiotics, pesticides, and chemical additives. The school draws on the expertise within Olmix and its larger network, to help farmers and agribusiness workers from around the world appreciate the benefits of algae and other marine resources.

When he looks to the future, Balusson sees a world that can feed itself without compromising the health of the planet. "The environment is not a constraint," he says. "It's a condition for success that has to be taken into account from the start." Algae may not be the silver bullet that rids the world of unsafe additives and fertilisers, but Balusson believes that it will be part of any comprehensive solution. "Many solutions assembled will represent an answer," he says, "and Olmix can be one of them."

This post was created by Insider Studios (Business Insider) with ING.