Aidan Connolly is the President of AgriTech Capital, a food/farm futurologist, and has a new book out soon, The Future of Agriculture.
Fish have very specific dietary needs. In the wild, large fish supplement diets of macro- and microalgae (plankton) with smaller fish, which contain vital protein (amino acids), energy and fatty acids (omega-3). In fish farms, these diets need to be mimicked. The “Achilles heel” of fish farming is that recreating diets analogous to those in the wild requires the addition of fishmeal.
To create fishmeal, high-temperature pressure cooking sterilizes the fishmeal, and it is shipped all over the world, with Peru and Chile being the largest producers. While progress has been made in replacing fishmeal, particularly by the leading salmon and trout farmers, nearly a quarter of fish caught as of 2017 is processed for fishmeal. Because of this process, consumers increasingly question the ESG values of a business where fish are caught in the ocean, cooked and then used to feed other fish.
Questioning the sustainability of farming fish may seem strange when climate change and overfishing have so dramatically depleted some fish species enough that many are now protected. While the contention that we will have no wild fish left in the sea by 2048 has been retracted, the volume of fish produced through aquaculture almost exceeds the volume of fish caught in our seas for the first time in our history.
With these concerns in mind, let’s look at some of the current alternatives to fish meal, as well as how the technology sector may be able to continue working toward a more sustainable model for farming fish.
The Evolution Of Fishmeal Alternatives
Traditional methods of replacing fishmeal led to an increased usage of meals processed from rendered proteins or protein from peas or soybean. For a variety of reasons, these two options bring challenges.
• Feeding animal protein has raised concerns about the transmission of disease.
• Plant proteins such as soy may cause digestive issues in fish.
• Concerns about ensuring soy isn’t originating from protected areas such as the Amazon.
Because of these concerns, neither of these options has been accepted as a solution to the fishmeal riddle.
More recently, algae meal has been proposed as a solution. Growing the food that fish consume in nature is appealing, and the presence of omega-3 fatty acids provides an element crucial to the growth of young fish. Algae has, however, proven expensive to produce, both in industrial and extensive farms.
Insect meal is another alternative since fish like to consume flies. Food waste can be used to feed black soldier flies and other insects. “Upgrading” waste fits with the circular economy, but the challenge is to create a repeatable, robust, scalable and cost-effective system. Ideally, insect farms need feedstocks to be free of charge. Since insects are what they eat, they also should be consistent and free of contaminants.
Yeast offers a myriad of advantages, including improved intestinal health and immune function, and is shown to aid scale health. Yeast is relatively expensive to produce, and protein levels don’t exceed 40%, limiting its ability to replace fishmeal.
Cell protein startups are promising they can bring fish-analog proteins grown on Petri dishes to the market, but the technology still faces a lot of questions. Growing cellular meats requires expensive media, the use of antimicrobials to prevent infections in the system, expensive equipment and buildings and more. Safe to as,y this technology, while exciting, is far from ready to scale or answer sustainability concerns.
The most exciting technology today might be the recent emergence of corn-fermented protein (CFP) derived from renewable fuel production. U.S. ethanol production results today in millions of tons of ingredients for livestock diets. Fluid Quip Technologies have developed technology to separate and concentrate proteins up to 50%. Green Plains Inc. recently reported producing a 60% MSC protein product through the use of enzymes in the process. Converting the dry mill ethanol plants in the U.S. could produce enough protein to cover 7 million tons necessary to replace fish meal.
Pointing To The Future
To build on these advancements, digital technologies and the technology sector may be able to continue to make advancements. The advance of “precision nutrition,” for example, may help our understanding of the real needs of fish. Aquaculture faces an additional complexity in that, according to the FAO over 600 species of fish are farmed, so understanding the precise nutritional needs of each species requires new levels of understanding of genomics, nutrigenomics and their intestinal microflora.
Likewise, land-based recirculated aquaculture systems (RAS) may help to reinvent the traditional sea-based aquaculture model. RAS is attracting huge interest and investment and perhaps will turn the fishmeal dependency on its head.
Practically, the world needs to find immediate alternatives to the practice of high levels of fishmeal. While fishmeal may continue to provide unique benefits, particularly in young fish, aquaculture producers need to balance the needs of these fish with the sustainability challenges facing our planet and solve this $10 billion problem. By continuing to study and develop novel ingredients, novel production systems and informed precise fish nutrition through digital technologies, the world may see a more sustainable future.