Aquaculture heading to the front of the pack

Aquaculture heading to the front of the pack Aquaculture is heading for the front of the pack in terms of food production

Farmed seafood is widely regarded as a “winning protein”, but what’s responsible for the industry’s growth and what will be the main drivers in the years to come? asks Jason Holland.

Aquaculture has long been backed to play a central role in global food security and the challenge of feeding a world population that is estimated to grow to well in excess of 9 billion people by 2050. As an industry, it has made good progress in this regard in recent decades. Indeed, since 2014, aquaculture has contributed more products for human consumption than their wild capture counterparts. But there is also a strong belief – held both inside and outside the industry – that with the oceans supplying around just 2% of the food that we eat, it could and should achieve much more.

The evolution and growing importance of farmed seafood are extolled in two new reports: The first, ‘The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2016’, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, acknowledges that while wild capture fisheries production has remained relatively static since the late 1980s, the contribution to supply from aquaculture has followed a consistent upward trend. The second study, ‘Riding New Waves of Change in Aquaculture’, compiled by Dutch multinational banking company Rabobank, confirms that farmed seafood has overtaken the volumes produced by the beef industry and is on course to soon become the third-largest source of protein globally, behind poultry and pork.

According to the FAO’s study, aquaculture has built strong momentum because most of the seafood it produces is destined for human consumption. At the same time, the sector’s ability to dependably harvest many different species of finfish, shellfish and aquatic plants has also enabled strong gains.

It finds that a total 580 species and/or species groups were being farmed around the world as of 2014, including 362 finfish (including hybrids), 104 molluscs, 62 crustaceans, six frogs and reptiles, nine aquatic invertebrates, and 37 aquatic plants. Their contribution to the seafood economy in 2014 reached levels of: 49.8 million tonnes of finfish worth US$ 99.2 billion; 16.1 million tonnes of molluscs worth US$ 19 billion; 6.9 million tonnes of crustaceans worth US$ 36.2 billion; and 7.3 million tonnes of other aquatic animals, including frogs worth US$ 3.7 billion.

Meanwhile, Rabobank’s study, which was compiled by Gorjan Nikolik, Rabobank’s senior analyst – seafood, explains that aquaculture’s growth is being driven by several factors. On the demand-side, for example, there is the rising consumption trend for healthy, low fat, omega-3 rich food products; while from a technological perspective, fish farming uses feeds increasingly more efficiently, allowing the end products to be priced at a more competitive level than most terrestrial proteins. For instance, creating 1kg of salmon requires just 1.2kg of feed, while 1kg of pork requires 3kg of feed.

It suggests that among the many changing factors, three key dynamics are occurring in different parts of the value chain that will shape aquaculture over the course of the next decade:*

* The development of new novel feed ingredients

* Changing farming technology and farming business models

* China’s move from being the world’s largest exporter of seafood to potentially one of the leading importers

Novel feed ingredients are set to make a major change in both the market perception and cost function of aquacultured seafood, especially when it comes to high-value species such as salmon and shrimp, states the report. Fish and shrimp use fishmeal as a feed ingredient (currently 5 to 35% of the feed), and while nutritionally this is their ideal protein feed source, it is sourced from wild-catch fisheries and therefore limited in supply and prone to price volatility. However, technological innovations and considerable capital investments have been made to produce alternative high-quality proteins and oils that have the potential to greatly improve the feed formulas used in aquaculture.

According to Nikolik, the three emerging technological platforms with the highest probability of success are: microbial meals – the culture of bacteria to create a high protein meal; micro-algae culture to produce algae oils rich in EHP and DHA amino acids (necessary for coldwater fish such as salmon); and insect culture, such as the black solder fly, which in the larva stage can create high-quality feed proteins and lipids.

Rabobank’s second expectation is that technologies and techniques being developed to combat biosecurity problems are key to reducing risk. The report says many potential solutions and innovations are on the way, from innovation in vaccines and biocides to better genetics based on new genomic selection tools. At the same time, farm design changes are occurring globally.

“As the aquaculture industry has grown, it has attracted the attention of large agro-industrial and pharmaceutical companies, which are now accelerating the rate of technological progress,” it says. “While we cannot predict the exact outcome of this wide array of innovations and solutions, it is highly likely that aquaculture husbandry technology and possibly fish farm design will change considerably in the medium and long term, lowering disease risk as well as costs. Growth and lower risks will attract further investment into the sector.”

While the previous two dynamics concern the supply side of aquaculture, Rabobank reckons there are also considerable dynamics on the demand side; most notably the possibility that China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of seafood, may also emerge as the largest importer. The report also suggests that the strong growth of supply of seafood from China over the past two decades is unlikely to continue as large areas of appropriate water are increasingly difficult to find and labour is becoming scarcer and more expensive. Furthermore, Chinese consumer tastes are changing, with a growing appetite for imported, high-value seafood products.

“If the current trends continue, China may transform into a net importer of seafood, from being the world’s leading exporter of seafood. This will create a global seafood shortage and drive demand for seafood across the world.”

Nevertheless, with streams of innovation, new technology and investment forthcoming, both reports further substantiate the mounting conviction that aquaculture will continue on its growth trajectory and the farming of aquatic products will become an increasingly prominent source of food ​globally.

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