Update August 2020
What does it take to be considered sustainable?
In its June 29 edition, The IntraFish quoted Geir Molvik, the CEO of Mitsubishi-owned salmon farmer Cermaq, calling for “a more nuanced debate on the use of alternative ingredients in feed”. "Putting one percent grasshopper meal in the feed does not automatically mean that it becomes more sustainable," Molvik told IntraFish.
His statement raises the following questions: what does it take to be considered sustainable? Are some materials more sustainable than others, and on what basis? What is the foundation for newly found raw materials’ sustainability claims? Is it more sustainable to use non-marine resources so as to ease the pressure on oceans? Should non-animal materials be considered superior?
The current debate on alternative feed ingredients is not based on any definite element which could have been scientifically proven. Let us start with a definition. The Food and Agriculture Organization defined sustainable diets as “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy, while optimizing natural and human resources”.
To better understand what is at stake when debating over sustainable sources of protein, we need to clearly state what is already widely acknowledged and what remains to be proven. “Fish and fisheries products are actually recognized not only as some of the healthiest foods on the planet, but also as some of the less impactful on the natural environment.” (FAO – 2020 SOFIA report). All aspects of food production contribute to climate changing emissions. But agriculture – and specifically meat and dairy farming – has the greatest impact.
We also know that marine ingredients – including by-products, that now provide one third of fishmeal and fish oil - provide farmed fish with unmatched amounts and quality of highly sought nutrients, from long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) to vitamins A, B and D, minerals and amino-acids. Plant-sourced shorter chain omega-3s (usually alpha-linoleic acid, ALA) are different and do not confer the same health benefits although all fish species are different: “For instance, the increasing incidence and severity of inflammatory diseases such as heart and skeletal muscle inflammation and cardiomyopathy syndrome in farmed Atlantic salmon have paralleled the increasing use of vegetable oil in the diet. The impact of these diseases was shown to be mitigated by functional feeds that were enriched in EPA through increasing fish oil inclusion” according to Prof. Doug Tocher, from the Stirling University (UK).
It is only natural that science on new raw materials be way behind research works on marine ingredients: the latter have been used for decades and have been the foundation of aquaculture since its birth. Full life cycle assessments as well as studies on health impacts remain to be delivered to retailers and consumers so that they fully understand the properties of new raw materials.
The marine ingredients sector knows where challenges lie: in those fisheries that are poorly managed (21.3% in volume and 34,2% in number of fisheries according to the FAO’s 2020 SOFIA report). A missing legal framework can result in bad social and environmental practices, which in turn damage the supply chain’s reputation. As in all food production systems, key requirements are product segregation and traceability, which ensure transparency. We have learnt from experience – see the Gulf of Thailand case study, among others - that improvement in fisheries can be driven in the long term, especially through FIPs.
The industry is fortunate enough to rely on standards that provide trustworthy guidelines – based on the FAO and the ISO’s international guidance - about which sustainability claims should or shouldn’t be made. Our priority should be to increase the volume of certified marine ingredients beyond the current uptake that represents over 50% of annually produced fishmeal and fish oil. This is a prerequisite to a continued and sustainable growth of aquaculture, in which new ingredients that are being developed will be used effectively alongside fishmeal and fish oil.
Petter Martin Johannessen