With the world’s population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and demand for more nutrient-dense, healthy nutrition increasing across geographies, it is estimated that aquaculture will need to increase production by 30–40 million tons by 2030 to keep up with the current rate of consumption. But how will an industry so reliant on marine resources for its feed continue to grow sustainably?
Dr. David Nickell, Vice President Sustainability at DSM Nutritional Products, Animal Nutrition & Health, outlines DSM’s approach to meeting the rising demand for nutritious, affordable aquaculture protein while helping the industry grow within critical marine resource boundaries.
Healthy diets from sustainable food systems
Aquaculture is a significant source of animal protein, which is in itself an important component of balanced human nutrition. It is generally recognized that aquaculture productivity has to increase to meet the protein demand of a growing and ever more affluent global population. In doing so, it must adopt new technologies and practices to address the significant sustainability challenges facing the industry. This has been further highlighted by the recent publication of the EAT Lancet Commission report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. It is well recognized that for aquaculture to grow, it must do so within planetary boundaries, especially when it comes to its heavy reliance on marine resources and its impact on ocean biodiversity.
One major constraint to the growth of aquaculture is the industry’s reliance on marine ingredients used in the feed, principally fish meal and fish oil, with the latter being critical. Fish oil contains the key omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are not only important for fish health and development, but also for the nutritional value of the final product for human consumption.
Fish oil: A finite natural resource
Fish oil, and in particular EPA and DHA, is a finite natural resource derived from the capture of wild, oily fish such as anchovies, sprat and capelin. Each year, approximately 16 million tons of oily fish, or 17% of the world’s fisheries, are captured and processed into about 5 million tons of fish meal and 1 million tons of fish oil, of which a mere 200,000 tons are made up by the important fatty acids EPA and DHA. What is more, the availability of these two fatty acids is declining year on year due to declining wild catch, changes in the mix of fish species caught, and a concomitant reduction in the amount of oil and fatty acids extracted.
The salmon industry uses approximately 40% of the world’s available EPA and DHA, with the other aquaculture industries using 35% and the human nutrition industry the remainder. Owing to the finite nature of these fatty acids, the salmon industry has had to reduce its use in order to maintain sufficient supplies to enable the industry to keep growing and keep up with the strong consumer demand for salmon. However, this has led to a 50% decline in the levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA in salmon fillets, whether of Norwegian, Scottish, Chilean or Tasmanian origin. This reduction in the nutritional value of salmon is a key concern for the value chain. Consumers purchase salmon for several reasons, but it is mainly the healthy omega-3 content that it provides that is the key motivation. Finding alternative sources of these precious omega-3 resources is therefore a top priority for aquaculture in general and the salmon industry in particular.
Veramaris®: A sustainable source of EPA and DHA
In order for the salmon industry to grow sustainably, reduce its over-reliance on dwindling marine resources and at the same time reverse the decline in the nutritional value of the fillet, DSM and Evonik established Veramaris®, a joint venture that has developed cutting-edge technology to produce omega-3 EPA and DHA via fermentation of natural marine algae at large scale. Veramaris® will produce 15% of the global salmon industry’s current requirement of EPA and DHA in a waste-free process. This innovation will help alleviate pressure on over-fished wild fisheries, enable the salmon industry to become a net producer of fish, help improve marine biodiversity and allow the salmon industry to raise the omega-3 levels in the fillet sustainably. For example, the amount of EPA and DHA in 1 ton of Veramaris® omega-3 algal oil is equivalent to that in 60 tons of wild catch. Moreover, the Veramaris® factory capacity of omega-3 EPA and DHA is equivalent to 1.2 million tons of wild-caught fish.
Validating the sustainability proposition
In order to validate the sustainability credentials of this breakthrough technology, Veramaris® worked with leading international research institutions to define new life cycle assessment (LCA) criteria relevant to the marine environment. These metrics examine the impact of replacing fish-oil-derived EPA and DHA with that produced by Veramaris® and record the effect of primary production of photosynthetic carbon (PPR), the sea surface dependency ratio, the pressure of over-fishing, and the forage fish dependency ratio.
PPR is a metric reflecting the disturbance of ecosystem flows that has been widely used to quantify biotic impacts in seafood LCAs, particularly in aquaculture studies when fish is used as feed in the form of fish meals and oils. It is often used as a metric of marine resource utilization, and the quantification of PPR is currently the most widely adopted metric to assess ecosystem impacts of farmed fish. Global fishery catches have been identified as constrained by the available primary production and may at present be at unsustainable levels in terms of utilization of ecosystem primary production.
From net consumption to net production
The LCA studies indicate that 59 tons of carbon need to be converted by photosynthesis and fed into the food web to produce 1 ton of salmon based on a typical, current commercial salmon diet. However, when replacing the fish oil in the salmon diet with Veramaris® algal oil (without reducing the fish meal component of the diet) the photosynthetic carbon requirement is reduced by 45%. Likewise, the sea surface area required for the production of the photosynthetic carbon is reduced by 44%. And the amount of forage fish (e.g. anchovies, sprat and capelin) caught at unsustainable levels to produce 1 ton of salmon is, in this example, reduced by 52%. This is very positive, since catches from wild-capture fisheries have actually been declining since peak global catches in the mid-1990s and the status of fishery stocks analyzed by FAO continue to show a detrimental trend — one of declining status across the board.
The last metric — forage fish dependency ratio (FFDR) — is a metric for describing the quantity of wild fish used in feeds in relation to the quantity of farmed fish produced. The salmon industry has a strong sustainability ambition to become a net producer of fish, which means using less than 1 ton of marine resources to produce 1 ton of salmon. Continuing with the above example, replacing the fish oil in the salmon diet (without reducing the fish meal inclusion) results in an 83% reduction in the amount of wild catch required to produce 1 ton of salmon. This means that by using Veramaris® omega-3 algal oil, the salmon industry can reach its target of becoming a net producer of fish — a substantial sustainability milestone for an industry that is an ever-important supplier of high-quality protein to an increasingly discerning consumer.
The new LCA metrics are fully validated by third-party auditors and clearly document the positive sustainability impact of Veramaris® algal omega-3 EPA and DHA oil on salmon production and the marine environment.
Reversing the decline in nutritional values
Not only does Veramaris® enable the sustainable growth of aquaculture; it also ensures that there is sufficient omega-3 EPA and DHA to start reversing the decline in the nutritional value of salmon in particular. As aquaculture takes an ever-increasing share of the protein market due to shifts in consumer preferences, it is critical that nutritional value should be upheld and that the industry should continue to employ even more sustainable practices, especially in respect of marine resources.
Veramaris® and the Sustainable Development Goals
The development of Veramaris® makes a measurable contribution to the achievement of four of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations in 2015:
DSM exists to create brighter lives for all. This starts with our customers, without whom we would not have a business. We offer them the world’s most comprehensive, science-based animal nutrition solutions, intelligently scaled to solve the sustainability and commercial challenges we all face in transforming the way we feed the world.
The world needs new pathways in sustainable animal protein, and DSM is at the forefront of that quest.