Opinion: Innovation key to providing sustainable fish feed solutions

We hear from the president of one of the world's leading aquaculture feed companies on how sustainable, plant-based ingredients are an innovative step in meeting worldwide protein demand.

This opinion piece was sent to IntraFish by Einar Wathne, president of Cargill Aqua Nutrition.

As a leading player in the aqua nutrition business, I talk to customers every day about how innovation will truly fuel our industry to meet the needs of the world's growing demand for protein.

As feed producers, we are seeking reliable and sustainable alternatives to ingredients that strain on taxed aquaculture ecosystems. These breakthroughs are helping the aqua industry forge ahead in what will be a combined effort to feed the world.

Now, a new type of canola currently in development could give aquaculture farmers a way to raise even more fish sustainably, with the high concentrations of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids expected.

This GMO plant-based oil can serve as an expander of the traditional fish oil sources, based on the latest trials. The product will enrich local agriculture communities growing this crop, and is expected to reach the market in the next few years. My hope is that we can lift the discussion on GMOs to a new level by including traits to the plant that directly benefits the consumer or the animal.

Aquaculture is the fastest growing global food industry. However, to continue to deliver growth to help feed the world, feed manufacturers like Cargill have to find raw materials which provide thriving, healthy growth without stripping resources from other parts of the human food chain.

Delivering omega-3 in fish feed

The omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fish oil are associated with many health benefits, including reducing the clinical impacts of obesity, improving heart health, increasing fertility and encouraging early childhood development.

As aquaculture develops and more consumers become aware of the health benefits of the omega-3s found in fish, demand for salmon and other fish has risen exponentially. According to a report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global fish consumption is hitting record highs, surpassing 20 kilograms per person in 2014. 

With improved global logistics, even people in countries with a traditionally low consumption of fish are now putting salmon and other fish in their diets.

Natural dietary sources with high contents of EPA and DHA include coldwater marine fish like herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, trout and salmon. Fish oil is extracted from either trimmings of consumption fish or from small, often bony wild caught fish with no consumer market. This ensures that the farmed fish provide health benefits to consumers. 

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Cargill focuses on sourcing oil from sustainably caught fish, but the quantity of such fish oil is limited and has not increased globally in the last 30 years. Therefore, in order to grow global aquaculture and to ensure that the same health benefits of EPA and DHA are available, more sources of these fatty acids are required, and the canola innovation at Cargill takes a big step in the right direction. Growing EPA/DHA Canola can provide significant volumes, cost efficiency and sustainability and provide hope that one growth limiting factor for aquaculture can be removed.

Feeding options for fishmeal

Many farmed fish, like salmon, eat only other fish in its wild life. Thus historically making fish feed was based on high inclusion of fish meal. Fish nutrition the last decade, has been a lot about finding out how to reduce and replace fishmeal.

Some 20 years ago we used 5 kg of fish to produce 1 kg of farmed, today we add protein to the table and use far less than 1 kg bony, non-food fish to produce 1 kg of salmon. However, this development has created another dilemma: Substitutes are few and, producer attempts to supplement salmon feed with vegetable protein has both fish health, supply dependency and sustainability disadvantages.

As with fish oil, Cargill is committed to sourcing fishmeal from sustainably caught fisheries, but this also limits the growth potential of aquaculture, as the global supply also is not increasing.

In our salmon feed business, we have decreased our use of marine raw materials (sum of fish meal and fish oil) by half, from 55 percent in 2005 to 27 percent in 2015, despite a large increase in annual feed production over the same period.

Still -- we need to find more sustainable alternatives.

A microbial solution to the fishmeal shortage is being implemented by Cargill and biotechnology company Calysta. Scientists developed a fermentation process using naturally occurring methanotrophs with gas as substrate that produces protein highly nutritious and palatable to fish and other animals.

At the start of the process, microbes are added to bioreactor vats, along with methane (or other carbon based gases), air, ammonia and other microbes. The microbes eat up the methane, mature and are eventually harvested. At the time of harvest, each organism is made up of more than 70 percent protein, which is dried, powdered and turned into pellets. The end result is nutritionally similar to fishmeal.

Environmentally, the land and water footprint of the process is smaller than for regular fishmeal development, and the product can be used in aquaculture, livestock and pet markets worldwide. A new Tennessee facility is expected to produce 22,000 metric tons of product in 2018, scaling up to 220,500 metric tons by 2020 -- equal to protein from 1 million metric tons wild fish. 

This will support the growth of the protein supply for aquaculture, without drawing on resources already used in the human food chain.

Looking ahead

What is clear to me is that with such innovations our industry has a wonderful opportunity to meet the world demand for protein in a sustainable, affordable and healthy way. We have a deep-rooted commitment proven out by our team of scientists and researchers who come to work each day knowing that innovations in fish feed can play a large part in making this happen.

With these two commercially viable solutions coming to market, it is easier to believe that the feed and production industries can continue to bring to consumers sustainable nutrition options for the world’s growing population.

We take the challenge of delivering healthy seafood for future generations very seriously, and I am optimistic that with these developments, and with additional research and innovation, we will find new ways to deliver critical protein to the market while protecting the resources of our planet.

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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?

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

Tomorrow we round up our series, with a look at the certification issues surrounding feed ingredients and what the future of aquaculture feed might look like.

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