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Part III: Feed alternatives - Which replacements are really viable?

Part three of our series drills down into the fishmeal and oil replacements being researched and where they sit in terms of scale, cost and sustainability.

While 20 years ago making fish feed was a matter of throwing together some fishmeal, fish oil, some wheat flour, vitamins and minerals, today it is much more complex.

The fat content in salmon feed back in the 1990s was predominantly fish oil. Today this is being increasingly replaced, and now 70-80 percent of the fat in a farmed salmon's diet has been replaced.

About 20 percent comes from fishmeal or fish oil and 80 percent from a mixture of different vegetable oils, such as soy bean oil, rapeseed oil, linseed oil.

“We used to just kick out fishmeal and fish oil and replace it, but nowadays there is a lot of work done and we start to understand we need to supplement it,” said Peter Coutteau, business unit director for aquaculture at Nutriad.

“If we take out fishmeal we have to put in other proteins, such as vegetable proteins, but we also need to correct the amino acids, correct the function properties, correct the palatability. There are a number of corrections done nowadays that allow us to reduce the fishmeal and fish oil without affecting too much the fish performance.”

Depending on the species, this work allows producers to replace 50 to 80 percent of the fishmeal. Where it used to be 45-50 percent fishmeal in the feed diets of many carnivorous fish, today it is more like 25 percent.

And this is not affecting fish performance as they still grow at similar rates, and still have similar conversions.

“This is because the nutrition is doing the job of compensating digestibility, taking care of amino acid balance, mineral balance, and basically developed nutritional knowledge in order to replace fishmeal by alternative proteins and fats,” said Coutteau.

Does soy fill the gap?

Kampachi Farms’ Neil Sims said his “mantra” of “softening mankind’s footprint on the sea” has led him and the company to testing terrestrial proteins, particularly soy. Sims has been working with the Nebraska Soy Board and the US Soybean Export Council (USSEC) for more than a decade on perfecting a soy-based diet for the kampachi, he told IntraFish. They now have a diet that’s 40 percent soy protein concentrate (SPC) and down to 12 percent fishmeal and 2 percent fish oil in trials.

“In the stage 1 and stage 2 trials, there is no significant difference in growth performance and survival of the fish and no discernible difference in product quality in the end,” Sims said, adding that Oregon State University’s trained sushi tasting panel “did not detect any difference in the fish.”

Kampachi Farms has also done trials with US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Fish Nutritionist Rick Barrows of feed “that completely eliminated all marine proteins”. The growth rate and product quality were comparable, but it was using a high-end poultry meal, which made it unviable, commercially.

“But it proves the point that you don’t need to feed fish to grow fish,” said Sims.

It’s a “high-moisture” diet, since species such as tunas and groupers don’t always like the dry, pelleted feed that salmon and other fish use. A diet like this would be ideal for species such as Japanese yellowtail, said Sims.

“By moving them onto this high-moisture diet, the goal is to be able to move those high-end species onto more agricultural proteins and oils,” he explained. “That would allow you to use more soy, corn, canola, wheat and legume proteins.”

These feeds are all amazing in theory, Sims said, but he recognizes that the challenge is always the viability of using them on farms.

“It’s a bit of a false comparison at the moment, because the SPC we’re using is a food-grade SPC, so it’s really expensive,” he said. “The challenge is that there are no commercial-size, feed-grade SPC plants in the United States. You have to do it in China, and we don’t want to do it in China if the soy is here.”

It’s a cyclical issue: There hasn’t been a plant built in the United States because there hasn’t been much demand for SPC -- and now that the demand is growing, the issue is there’s no plant, so “questions like price are challenging to figure out.”

However, the nutritional comparison sustainability of soy protein is top-notch, Sims explained.

“By moving toward agricultural proteins and oils, you decouple yourself from the price of fishmeal and fish oil every time an El Nino shows up,” he explained. “In the long term, we want to decouple ourselves from the fishmeal price fluctuation from the El Nino effect, and use fishmeal where it is needed, in particular for juvenile fish diets and the early stage of the fish. There’s a lot less variability in commodity prices.”

As for nutritional value, Sims admitted there are some challenges with getting the nutrition perfectly right, but “there’s really powerful evidence that we’ve gotten it pretty close.” As diets move toward being more plant-based, methionine and taurine need to be substituted and Sims said researchers are looking ways of doing this, such as using microalgae as a source of taurine.

“As far as the global sustainability of aquaculture, it’s really exciting, both the scalability of the industry and the sustainability of the industry,” he said.

As restrictions diminish, can flies really produce an alternative?

French-Tunisian agri-tech startup nextProtein has another suggestion -- insect larvae. The company is scaling up operations this year and has secured €1.3 million ($1.4 million) in fundraising for its black soldier fly larvae harvesting and processing.

The company rears black soldier flies to produce protein flour and oil to be integrated in animal feed, co-founder Syrine Chaalala told IntraFish. They began in petfood and have now ventured into aquafeed, she said.

Along with partner Mohamed Gastli, Chaalala produces the product in Tunis, Tunisia, but nextProtein is carefully following the European Union’s production standards. In December, the EU authorized the use of protein in aquafeed, a huge breakthrough, Chaalala said.

“That’s our first market, but we’re also aiming at working in the sub-Saharan markets and Asia eventually,” she said.

Gastli said with the black soldier fly, fish diets can reach 60 to 65 percent protein, which he admits is still slightly less than fishmeal’s 68 to 70 percent protein, “but when you compare the ratio between protein and price, insect meal could be a really competitive alternative.” nextProtein hopes to sell the protein for about €1,000 to €1,200 ($1,070/$1,285) per metric ton, far less than traditional fishmeal.

He said there are still obstacles, of course, as it’s a new field with few studies. There is only about 5,000 to 10,000 metric tons of insect protein produced in the world, “so it’s not so available, but the increases will be from this year forward. We are very far from the 5 million metric tons of fishmeal, but in the next five years, several startups are working on increasing the availability.”

The sustainability factor is huge, as well, Chaalala said. The amount of insect protein produced on 100 square-meters of surface is equivalent to the amount produced in 100 acres of a soy field, she said.

“Obviously with fishmeal … it is urgent to find an alternative and to us, the obvious choice was insects because of the capacity to rear them,” she said. “To produce the insects we need very little land surface, very little water, very little electricity.”

In addition, there are 10,000 less greenhouse gases emitted than regular agriculture, Gastli said.

The first species nextProtein is looking into are trout, salmon and shrimp, which are naturally “insectivores,” they said. A big breakthrough came when the EU approved the use late last year, as bigger companies such as Nutreco and Cargill were initially hesitant to work with the company.

“Since it was approved, they want to receive quantities and samples,” Gastli said. “We need to produce a lot and that’s the biggest challenge. We need to reach 5,000 metric tons in 4-5 years.”

Who is making enough?

One of the few companies who appears to be getting somewhere on the all-important economies of scale is new entrant to the aquaculture scene, Calysta who, together with animal feed giant Cargill and several third-party institutions, said last November it plans to invest in the creation of the world’s largest gas fermentation facility in Memphis, Tennessee, to produce Calysta’s FeedKind protein, a family of sustainable, traceable nutritional ingredients for fish, livestock and pets.

"This facility is expected to come online in late 2018, producing up to 20,000 metric tons of FeedKind per year initially and expanding up to 200,000 metric tons at capacity," said Calysta CEO Alan Shaw.

Calysta opened an R&D and market introduction facility in the UK to produce FeedKind samples last September.

"These samples will be available later this year and will be used for trials in other species, including shrimp, and to seek approval for use in other geographic territories," Shaw told IntraFish, adding that the feed is approved for EU livestock. "FeedKind will be priced competitively to existing alternatives."

FeedKind is made of more than 70 percent protein to ensure it is nutritionally similar to fishmeal. It also "has significantly higher nutritional value than algae or yeast based alternatives and more than most insect-based alternatives."

FeedKind protein uses 77 to 98 percent less water than alternative ingredients, including soy and wheat proteins and does not require agricultural land to produce. One commercial scale FeedKind protein plant, if used to replace soy products for fish feed, would free up enough land to feed as many as 250,000 people, according to Shaw. It also reduces greenhouse gas impact by using methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

"We are taking carbon that is now outside the food chain and bringing it in," Shaw told IntraFish. "Our process also releases significantly less carbon dioxide than simply burning the methane."

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All this week, IntraFish is running an exclusive series of articles drilling down on the use of marine ingredients in the aquaculture industry; the problems with the industry's reliance on them, the challenges of removing them and the viable alternatives on the table.

Catch up on the series so far:

Part I: Feed alternatives - The trouble with fishmeal

Part II: Feed alternatives - How low should we go with marine ingredients?

Tomorrow we hear from Einar Wathne, President of Cargill Aqua Nutrition, one of the world's biggest fish nutrition companies, on the need for innovation in the sector.

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