The farming of fish and other seafoods for human consumption is one of the food sector’s greatest success stories of recent decades. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in terms of output, aquaculture continues to grow faster than any other major food supply sector, and by 2030 it’s expected to provide 60% of the seafood that the human race consumes.
With the global population forecast to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050, aquaculture’s contribution to food security will become steadily more prominent. However, the industry itself acknowledges that its continued growth could be hindered by a handful of potential impactors. These barriers include climate change and environmental constraints, new regulatory boundaries, diseases and other biological challenges, the ability to improve genetics, and last but certainly not least – the availability of raw material resources for aquafeeds.
Fishmeal and fish oil are among the most nutritious and digestible ingredients for aquaculture feeds and species, but coming from wild-capture fisheries, they’re also a finite resource. Added to this, aquafeed producers are experiencing rising competition for supplies from other industries. These and other factors mean that fishmeal and fish oil availability and prices are prone to dramatic fluctuations.
With feed already accounting for more than 60% of the total rearing costs in aquaculture, considerable innovation is taking place in the aquafeed sector to reduce the industry’s dependence on traditional ingredients. The consensus is that the application of new sustainable raw materials and specialty ingredients in aquafeeds – both through replacement and interchange – offers a practical means to do just that.
To fuel the feed producers’ drive, there has been increased global activity focused on the development of new or so-called “novel” ingredients. Here, the overriding aim is to deliver new protein raw materials and alternative sources of essential omega-3 long chain fatty acids.
So far this R&D has seen three clear frontrunners emerge: algae, microbials and insects: specifically, algae oils containing EPA and DHA; proteins based on different insect species using waste streams; and proteins created by multiplying bacteria through the use of an energy source input such as methane or carbon dioxide.
These technologies are already being applied in a very select but growing number of aquaculture systems. As the pioneers behind these ingredients are finding, scalability is essential to their successful introduction. In addition to delivering equal nutritional benefits and performance in the diet formulations, they need to be available at prices that are viable for aquaculture operations. At the same time, manufacturing processes cannot lead to negative environmental or social impacts.
Crucially, these new ingredient platforms have attracted support from outside the aquaculture sector. There has, for example, been a wave of agribusinesses getting involved in the algae sector. This is because algae are a good source of omega-3s, and this is the market that’s in short supply when it comes to things like salmon farming.
Experts have forecast the whole algae oil market could reach approximately one million tonnes per year. They further believe that the microbial sector, which is also attracting a lot of agri-investment, has the potential to reach an estimated 5.5 million tonnes – just for aquafeeds. By comparison, the global annual supplies of fishmeal and fish oil currently fluctuate at around five million and one million tonnes respectively.
Meanwhile, the insect platform comprises a far greater number of start-ups than the algae and microbial sectors combined. It is also the most circular of the three solutions – potentially using waste as an input, whereas algae systems need sugars and microbials require a carbon source.
In the grand scheme of things, aquaculture has only just embarked on this particular disruptive path. But with so much focus on the new ingredient space, it’s clear that we won’t be waiting long for the most advanced companies to reach scale. Current momentum would further suggest that within the next five to 10 years the aquafeed sector will have much greater flexibility at its disposal in terms of the diets that it formulates, thereby providing the aquaculture sector with the scope to grow without limits.