The incentives are very strong for ‘business-as-usual’ when it comes to aquafeeds. For one thing, there are a lot of inherent challenges in aquaculture, so who would want to add additional risk by working with novel feed ingredients? While this makes sense in the short term, ‘staying the course’ with current diet formulas is sure to result in lower aquaculture productivity in the future. The consensus is fishmeal is the gold standard protein ingredient for aquafeed, but its supply is limited and only going to get tighter as time passes. Terrestrial plant proteins like soy in the form of soybean meal and soy protein concentrate are currently the primary commercial alternative but there are practical dietary concerns such as gut inflammatory responses. Also, as demand for plant proteins increases, this presents a new and significant challenge- do we want to use our limited supply of arable land to grow food for us or for animals?
So, are there commercially available alternatives to fishmeal and soy? Not yet, but the good news is they are coming soon. Dozens of companies, including mine, are working on new and sustainable protein sources. These include proteins made from insects, algae, and microbes like bacteria. The efficacy and safety of these alternatives has been demonstrated in numerous studies and trials. Prices are dropping as we start to scale up production. One problem we all face is that the regulatory review process required to get them to market is often extremely slow and highly fragmented. For example, in the U.S., Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation is supposed to take less than 6 months but reportedly some companies are now waiting a year or more for approvals. And GRAS is just one designation from a single country! Getting a feed ingredient approved for widespread use can take years of navigation through regulatory nightmares and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t get me wrong – I think we need oversight and there should be a burden of proof on manufacturers to prove safety, but clearly we can improve the current process.
How can the regulatory barrier be removed, or at least simplified? Here’s an idea- why not have a set of international standards for feeds? Surely if something is safe enough to feed to an American yellowtail or Norwegian salmon, it’s also safe enough to feed a Chilean trout or Vietnamese shrimp. The ISO has developed international standards for many products, so why not have an equivalent for animal feeds? A common set of regulations would not only allow new products to come to market faster, it would provide a regulatory framework for small countries that do not currently have the means to support a feed safety bureaucracy.
Bottom line: Alternative feeds may be the only way for the aquaculture industry to expand sustainably to meet global protein needs. Ingredients like single cell proteins offer a sustainable and affordable alternative, and they don’t compete with agriculture for land and freshwater resources. But to get them to the market sooner, creative solutions from governments and other stakeholders could seriously help.