The Henry Ford of Alternative Protein?

July 31, 2018

When I have the opportunity to share the KnipBio story with a variety of audiences, invariably I get asked a question that is some variation of, “So, Larry, why do you believe your bug is going to beat insects (or algae, or some other concept) in the alternative-to-fishmeal market?”. I acknowledge the skepticism, usually smile in understanding towards the savviness of the question and then dig in to share some of my thoughts. For one, our technology is highly scalable, it doesn’t requires expensive equipment or deal with potentially dangerous feedstocks. It’s quite a simple process actually. Our single cell protein will be affordable and effective. Our bacteria produces useful immuno-nutrients in addition to simply making high quality protein. Etc. etc. 


Then I give them the real answer, in the form of an analogy. In 1900 would it be reasonable to ask Henry Ford or Gottlieb Daimler who was going to be ‘the winner’ in the emerging horseless carriage market?  Of course not. The automobile market was destined to be large enough for both Ford and Mercedes Benz to be huge successes- along with GM, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Tesla, and… well, you get my point.  When a market is big enough, there can be many winners. The same thing is going to happen in the aquafeed market. I am certain of that. 


According to a recent report from MRC/Stratistics, the aquafeed market was worth $114 billion in 2017. It  is predicted to grow to almost $290 billion by 2026.  Where will the protein for this additional $176 billion of feed come from? Not from fishmeal… The supply of fishmeal has plateaued at around 5.0-6.5 million tons per year, depending on weather conditions and other factors. Pelagic fish are being turned into fishmeal at a rate that is (probably) still sustainable, but there is simply not enough marine biomass to meet future demands.


Soybean meal? Aquaculture currently uses about 10 million tons of SBM annually. It takes roughly an acre of good farmland to grow enough soybeans to produce one ton of SBM, so 10 million acres of the world’s increasingly scarce farmland is currently devoted to feeding fish. We currently use 37% of the Earth’s surface for farmland and devote 70% of our fresh water to agriculture.  To satisfy the industry needs in the next decade with soy protein alone would require an additional 15 million acres of arable land and more than 10 trillion gallons of water. Can this happen? Despite my optimism for increases in yield for technology, frankly, the answer is ‘NO’. Fresh water is already a scarce commodity across many parts of the world and an acre of arable land is lost every second of every day due to desertification and urbanization. 


This leaves an enormous opening for alternative protein sources that are both highly scalable and do not compete for the land and water resources used by humans. That includes insect meal made from black soldier flies, ideally fed human food waste. And algae grown in shallow ponds that can fix atmospheric CO2. And single cell protein made from bacteria grown in a reactor with a land footprint approximately 1000 fold less than a soybean farm. Maybe even other sources that haven’t even surfaced yet. As a wise man once said, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ There is going to be enough demand for protein for fish that all of these alternative methods can succeed. 


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