The raw prawn on fishmeal substitutes
Manufacturers of commercial fish feed are increasingly substituting fishmeal — a powder made from fish — with crop-based ingredients in order to improve the sustainability of aquafeed.
A new study led by PhD researcher Wesley Malcorps, from the University of Stirling's Institute of Aquaculture, challenges this environmentally friendly theory with researchers focusing on the prawn industry, as it is one of the dominant consumers of fishmeal in the aquaculture sector.
The research found that the substitution of fishmeal with plant ingredients merely moved pressures from finite marine resources to land-based food production systems, with environmental repercussions. The experts involved in the work are now calling for a "paradigm shift" in thinking around the relative sustainability of aquafeed ingredients.
Malcorps said: "Substituting fishmeal for plant ingredients is considered by many to be environmentally sustainable, as it reduces dependency on finite marine resources. However, this would shift resource demand from the oceans onto the land, potentially adding pressure to the land-based food production systems, which are already under pressure to meet global demand for food, feed, biofuels and bio-based materials. In turn, this would affect the environment and biodiversity, as well as the availability and prices of crops.
"In addition, the nutritional requirements of certain aquatic species may limit the amount of fishmeal substitution due to essential nutrients, which are variable or imbalanced in terrestrial plant ingredients. Furthermore, increased inclusion of plant ingredients in aquafeed could also affect the nutritional value of farmed seafood."
The study modelled incremental fishmeal substitution, from 20–30% to zero, by plant ingredients — such as soybean meal concentrate, rapeseed meal concentrate, pea protein concentrate and corn gluten meal — which are typically included in modern feeds for the two main prawn species produced globally — whiteleg prawns (Litopenaeus vannamei) and black tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon).
The team then assessed the impact this could have on marine and terrestrial resources, such as fish, land, freshwater, nitrogen and phosphorus.
The research found that complete substitution of 20–30% of fishmeal totals could lead to an increasing demand for fresh water, of up to 63%; land, of up to 81%; and phosphorus, of up to 83%.
"These are significant increases, as only a small proportion of the feed is actually substituted," Malcorps explained. "Our findings suggest this approach would lead to additional pressures on essential agricultural resources, with associated socioeconomic and environmental effects as a trade-off to pressures on finite marine resources. It could lead to competition for land and other terrestrial resources, causing social and environmental conflicts that, in turn, may affect the resilience of the global food system."
Aquafeed generally utilises only a small percentage of global crop production; however, with aquaculture one of the fastest growing food sectors, the experts warn additional pressures on crucial terrestrial resources "may become more obvious" over the coming decades.
Malcorps suggests finding an "optimal balance" between marine and terrestrial resources in aquafeed; strategically include high-quality fishmeal; improving the use of fish by-products and food waste in feeds; and investigating the potential for novel ingredients — such as microbial biomass, algae and insect meals — to be included.
Wesley Malcorps, Björn Kok, Mike van‘t Land, Maarten Fritz, Davy van Doren, Kurt Servin, Paul van der Heijden, Roy Palmer, Neil Auchterlonie, Max Rietkerk, Maria Santos, Simon Davies. The Sustainability Conundrum of Fishmeal Substitution by Plant Ingredients in Shrimp Feeds. Sustainability, 2019; 11 (4): 1212 DOI: 10.3390/su11041212.
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