Is fishmeal sustainable?

FMFO is made from species low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, mackerel and krill, that would otherwise be available to predators like carnivorous fish, cetaceans or birds. Nearly a fifth of the world’s annual wild fish catch goes to make FMFO (by-products from wild-capture fisheries for human consumption are another important source), so the implications for wild fish populations are significant.

FMFO goes into pig and poultry feed, but the largest demand comes from aquaculture. With increasing concerns over the health and environmental impact of meat consumption, many consumers have turned to seafood for their protein, and the sector is booming. Aquaculture now provides more seafood than capture fisheries, and this is set to grow: by 2030, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 62% of the world’s seafood will come from farms. And carnivorous species that require FMFO, such as salmon, trout and prawn, are increasingly popular.

Researchers and NGOs have questioned the sustainability of the FMFO industry. Last year, the Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation published a report exposing highly unsustainable fishing practices for FMFO in the Gambia, India and Vietnam, from depleting stocks of staple food fish to indiscriminate trawling, polluting processing plants, and dubious certification schemes. Considering the pressures marine ecosystems already face from overfishing for human food, pollution, climate change and deep-sea mining, the use of whole fish to make FMFO is indefensible, said Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets. “If the industry cannot operate in a way that doesn’t destroy the ocean, it no longer has a social license to operate,” she said. “We cannot afford to use that fish to produce fish for affluent western populations.”

Coastal net pens for salmon aquaculture in Norway. Image by Brataffe via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Salmon aquaculture in Norway. Image by Brataffe via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Brett Glencross, senior nutritionist at the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said the share of marine ingredients in fish feed has already gone down significantly, from around 24% in 1990 to around 7% in forecasts for 2020. “We have made our fish vegetarian,” he said.

A small percentage of a large volume still adds up to a significant amount, however. Hurley said she is particularly worried about the marketing push behind carnivorous species like salmon. “When I was a child, we ate salmon once or twice a year,” she said. “Now it’s become this thing that we eat regularly and if that’s replicated in China, we have a serious problem.” She is also concerned that salmon has become the standard cheap supermarket fish in some locales: Changing Markets found that salmon was particularly present at the discount end of the market at retailers in the U.K. “It’s not about customer demand, it’s retailers thinking: ‘what can I provide that’s cheap?’” she said. She argued the aquaculture industry should shift to species requiring less or no feed input, such as tilapia, carp or mussels, and that producers and retailers could help drive change in consumer habits.

Charts show salmon feed formulation. The percentage of fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO) in aquaculture feed has declined considerably since 1990. Commercial salmon feeds typically now contain around 20-25% of marine ingredients; the rest is made up of grain, vegetable oil and meal, and sometimes animal protein. Other popular farmed seafood, such as shrimp and trout, also require FMFO. Image sourced from MOWI, Salmon Farming Industry Handbook 2019.

Plants vs. insects and bacteria

The most common alternatives to FMFO currently are soy, wheat and corn. The problem with plant proteins is that they have anti-nutritional compounds (which interfere with the absorption of nutrients) and a non-optimal amino acid profile, Glencross from the University of Stirling said. Soy also comes with its own environmental baggage, being a primary driver of deforestation in South America.

Animals, including humans, need 10 essential amino acids to survive and thrive, notably omega-3s. FMFO is well-known for its high concentration in omega-3s, and finding an alternative source of them has been the Holy Grail for salmon-feed formulators.

The breakthrough came in 2016, when Norwegian feed manufacturer Skretting launched a fishmeal-free feed for salmon called MicroBalance FLX. A year later, the company also managed to replace fish oil to make the feed completely fish-free. A company spokesperson  told Mongabay that years of research on alternatives that Skretting and others had done went into developing the product.

Insects and bacteria not only offer great replacements for animal and plant protein, they also offer amino acid profiles that rival FMFO. The issue so far with these novel ingredients is that the volumes produced are low and their costs high. The Skretting spokesperson, for instance, said the company aims to have 50,000 tonnes of novel ingredients by 2022; in 2019, it produced 2.4 million tonnes of feed.

Kees Aarts, founder of Netherlands-based Protix, the world’s largest insect producer, is bullish about the prospects of the insect sector. His company raised 45 million euros ($49 million) to build a state-of-the-art commercial BSF production facility that opened in Bergen op Zoom in May 2019. Last month, it welcomed a new shareholder, Rabo Corporate Investments, to accelerate its international expansion; other large insect farms, such as AgriProtein in South Africa and Ÿnsect in France, have also concluded significant investments to scale expansions. “It’s not just a bunch of start-ups. Not anymore,” Aarts said. “Our plant opening marked our transition to a company maturing to commercially operating business. It tells our customers that they can start counting on this product.”

Aarts said the advantage of insects is that they feature in the diet of wild fish; they are therefore a proven perfect fit, with an excellent amino acid profile. They also turn low value by-products from the food industry into valuable protein.

Several leading companies have used insect products in their feed, with great feedback from customers. “We expect that when volume availability increases from these suppliers, we will be able to increase our usage of these ingredients,” Skretting’s spokesperson said.

Another promising ingredient is bacteria, grown using modern fermentation techniques. Glencross said a key advantage is that bacteria do not use protein to make protein: “They make it new. Only bacteria and plants can do that.”

Bacteria are the fastest-growing organisms on Earth; they’re also incredibly diverse, with a trillion species. The possibilities of how you can use them are therefore virtually limitless, said Larry Feinberg, founder of KnipBio, an aquaculture biotechnology company located in Massachusetts that expects to commercialize its first bacteria product this year. “We can discover additional compounds or different features in a matter of weeks. With soy, you have to wait at least a season,” he said.

Bacteria production is also more constant than that of soy or FMFO, and more efficient. “Our brewery is 1,000 times smaller in terms of land requirements than a soy farm to produce the equivalent amount of protein,” Feinberg said. “We can grow year around, there is no hail, no drought.”

Aquafeed with bacteria as the main ingredient at Massachusetts-based company KnipBio. Image courtesy of KnipBio.

Bacteria production can also be done pretty much anywhere, unlike FMFO, which relies heavily on anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) production from Peru. “Breweries,” as bacteria plants are known, are usually located close to their feed source to optimize costs. KnipBio feeds its bacteria ethanol or methanol, so its brewery is located at a corn ethanol plant in the U.S. Midwest. NovoNutrients, a Californian biotechnology startup also with its sights set on aquafeed, feeds its bacteria CO2 and hydrogen. It plans to have a pilot gas fermentation facility that uses industrial emissions from oil company Chevron up and running by the end of 2020, and to set up a pilot plant with another industrial CO2 emitter in Japan in 2021.

Feinberg said bacteria’s unique selling point is that it’s a “smart” technology: KnipBio’s bacteria makes protein without anti-nutrition, and with pigments, prebiotic and probiotic compounds. There is also no end to the feed/bacteria/processing combinations that can be devised to customize products.

In the medium term, David Tze, NovoNutrients’ founder, is confident that bacterial protein will be competitive. “We believe that our cost of production at 100,000 tonnes per year would be about $1,000/tonne,” he said. “It will sit between soy protein concentrate and FMFO [price-wise] and deliver value that’s equal or higher than FMFO. That’s our basic pitch.”

Microbe strain development at NovoNutrients, a California-based company that grows bacteria for aquafeed. At plants under development, the company plans to feed its bacteria industrial emissions of waste CO2 and hydrogen. Back: Brian Sefton, NovoNutrients’ chief technology officer; front: Bill Coleman, vice president of biology. Image courtesy of NovoNutrients.

A mix of ingredients

Protein alternatives are likely to complement rather than rival each other. “Any single feed can contain up to 50 ingredients, including vegetable ingredients, land animal by-products from the human food industry, plus vitamins and minerals,” the Skretting spokesperson said. This therefore requires a flexible approach to formulation. “When we have maximum flexibility, we have the freedom to formulate optimal feeds without the limitation of ingredient availability.”

In a bid to drive novel ingredient adoption, Skretting is involved in FEED-X, an initiative of Project X, a WWF-founded corporate accelerator. It aims to scale novel alternatives so they can be commercially viable for aquaculture and other animal feeds.

Feinberg said looking beyond aquafeed manufacturers will be key to unlocking the potential of novel ingredients. “These ingredients, whatever they are, will always be more expensive. That’s the nature of new technology,” he said. “But that has to be recognized by the restaurant chef who cooks the fish and the consumer who eats it.”

In a bid to start this dialogue with consumers, in 2018 Protix launched Friendly Fish, consumer branded salmon, trout and shrimp with insects replacing marine ingredients in their feed. Although Friendly Fish is still in the development stage, Aarts said it was important to generate a discussion about the health of the food system and how people could contribute positively to change. (Protix also has branded eggs laid by hens fed on live insects; these are already sold in supermarkets in the Netherlands.)

It’s a conversation worth having because many in the sector argue that there is a place for FMFO. “When marine ingredients are sourced from by-products from fish processing for human consumption, sustainably certified fisheries, and fisheries that are in fishery improvement programs, they remain very good ingredients in aquaculture feed, both in terms of quality, composition and sustainability,” the Skretting spokesperson said.Instead, Hurley of Changing Markets Foundation advocated ditching feed altogether in favor of new approaches like integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), a type of polyculture where the by-products of one species are food for another, much like in natural systems. Zero Waste Scotland, an organization that promotes circular economy models, is piloting an IMTA system with salmon, various species of shellfish and algae in Loch Fyne, with encouraging results.

“Aquaculture is a very extractive industry so if you focus on one alternative, you’re still going down that extractive route,” Hurley said. “We need a more regenerative approach.”

Banner image: Workers harvest black soldier fly larvae at the InsectiPro farm in Limuru, Kenya. The insects will be used as an ingredient in animal feed. Image by Emilie Filou.

Emilie Filou is a freelance journalist specializing in business and development issues in Africa. She tweets at @EmilieFilou.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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