Response: “Microalgae makes fish diets more sustainable” (Neil Auchterlonie)

IFFO's Neil Auchterlonie (Technical Director) responsed to an article by All About Feed titled “Microalgae makes fish diets more sustainable”, at 

IFFO, The Marine Ingredients Organisation (IFFO) is an international ‘not for profit’ organisation that represents and promotes the fishmeal, fish oil and wider marine ingredients industry worldwide.  We are globally respected and regularly represent the industry at international forums, as well as holding observer status at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the EU Commission and Parliament.

IFFO would like to respond to the above-mentioned article which is currently available on your website.  You may be interested to note that we had previously written to the original authors of the paper (via the journal editor) largely because of the way the trial was represented in connection with the use of fish oil in aquafeed.  If you would like to see a copy of that correspondence we can provide it.

That letter was written last summer at the time the study was published in PLOS One.  We have only very recently been made aware of the existence of your story on the paper, although I note that your item also dates back to that time.  I am sorry I did not come across the article at the time, and that this letter to you is therefore a bit delayed, but I felt that we also needed to write to you even now in order to provide some information to counter at least one of the main messages in the text.  This is especially true given that the article still remains visible to your website’s readers.

The message that is the focus of our concerns is the assertion that through the substitution of fish oil with algal oil an aquafeed will become more sustainable.  That is the implication in the article title, even though the text in the article does not necessarily follow suit, and is largely a description of the study.  The title, however, is potentially damaging in its own right. 

At IFFO we acknowledge that aquaculture requires additional volumes of fishmeal and fish oil to support the growth of the industry.  We don’t disagree with the statement “Responsible expansion of aquafeeds, inter alia, requires finding sustainable alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil ingredients, of which aquaculture is the largest user”.  More fishmeal and fish oil is unlikely to be forthcoming globally (although there are indications that at least some small additional volume may be achieved through better utilisation of byproduct).  The continuing expansion of aquaculture needs more feed, and by extension, ingredients. 

We talk about the growing need for fish oil (and fish meal) partial substitution via the phrase “As Well As, Not Instead Of”.  Many farmed fish species remain dependent nutritionally on fishmeal and fish oil and inclusion rates in feed for some species may be close to the limit that is acceptable with current technology and ingredients’ availability.  Marine ingredients were the foundation for modern fed aquaculture, and they will remain so for some time to come.

The apparent fad for the promotion of many of the alternatives at the expense of fishmeal and fish oil seems to be incorrectly based on the premise that the marine ingredients used in aquafeeds are unsustainable.  This is simply not true, and actually, in general terms, the opposite is true.  We regularly write to authors and editors about the way the material has been presented in order that we may put across information about the reality of the operations of the fishmeal sector.  I realise that may not be the intention when journalists write their copy, but unfortunately the communications are often a bit ambiguous and easily misinterpreted.  It is also perhaps less interesting to spread some of the good news about an industry that has been operating for decades and has achieved proportional levels of certification well above any competitor ingredients currently used in aquafeeds.

At this stage, because commercial volumes have yet to be produced, not too much is known about the production of algal oils, the processes involved, the cost and the environmental impacts.  It is therefore difficult to make comparative statements about sustainability of algal oils against fish oils.  This could be done hypothetically, but that is dangerous without knowledge of future production realities.  In contrast, the fish oil production process is well known, from the management and availability of the raw material, to the engineering of the equipment, the processes and the qualities of the end product.  Considerable effort has gone into adopting certification in the fishmeal sector, to the extent that volumes of more than 40% of global supply of fishmeal and fish oil are certified to the IFFO Responsible Supply scheme, IFFO RS.  This is an independently certified scheme that assesses the raw material as well as the processes at the fishmeal plant.

The new technology that may produce alternative ingredients for the partial substitution of marine ingredients in aquafeeds is developing, but these are still a long way from producing the volume required to support aquaculture.  In the meantime, it is more helpful to acknowledge the advances that have been made by the sector that is at the foundation of aquaculture, and on which global fed aquaculture depends, rather than appearing critical of a sector without which only a tiny fraction of farmed fish would be produced.