The need for a sustainable product to reduce the aquaculture industry’s dependence on fish oils for feed is a driving force behind innovation in the sector today. However, that demand is also attracting innovation from other sectors, namely biomass and algae production.
Matt Carr, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), says that many in the sector have begun to look at feeds when other biomass applications became less profitable.
“What really led to the explosion in growth in both interest and product development for feed was a combination of the downturn in the fuel market. As petroleum prices have come crashing down, interest in alternative fuels has waned recently and also the rise in feed prices, and in particular omega-3 oil prices for feed,” says Carr. “Our industry, partly out of necessity, has been reinventing itself and targeting the markets where there is the demand and the opportunity for profit.”
Carr says that other grain and vegetable commodities are also targeting the aquafeed market, having recognized the same opportunity, but that feed trials have demonstrated that vegetarian sources of protein and oils lack the key long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (such as algae docosahexaenoic acid or DHA) that are the foundation of the marine diet.
“It’s why salmon are considered to be a really healthy source of healthy oils; salmon and shrimp
and a large number of other species feed directly or indirectly on algae,” says Carr. “Terrestrial sources of oils were never part of the diet of these types of fish. Algae are the bottom of the food chain for much of the marine ecosystem. In a lot of ways, what we’re doing is cutting out the middle fish and delivering the original source of the omega-3s to farmed seafood without having to go through smaller feed fish.”
Joint venture taps DHA’s potential
ABO member Terra Via Holdings Inc formed a joint venture with agribusiness company Bunge Ltd, which explores the potential of using DHA in the aquaculture feed market via their feed ingredient called AlgaPrime DHA. The two companies have been collaborating since 2009, says Bunge Vice-President of Global Innovation Miguel Oliveira, noting that Terra Via were an ideal partner for their purposes.
“For us, we were looking for companies that had technologies that would enable us to add more value to agricultural inputs that we already handled,” says Oliveira. “Terra Via was the one that came up with the best algae technology around. Over time we did a joint venture together and in 2015, we expanded that JV to incorporate a lot of new products both in the food and feed space.”
The joint venture’s algal facility was built adjacent to a Bunge-owned sugar mill in Brazil so that the two could work in concert, said Terra Via Global Sustainability Director Jill Kaufmann Johnson.
“Simply, what we do is that sugar is crushed at the mill and it is fed to the algae in very large fermentation tanks – like eight stories high,” says Kaufmann Johnson. “The algae grow plump with oil, as algae is the original oil producer, that’s what it naturally does. We remove them from the tank and then they are dried – it’s like a powder. The oil is still encapsulated in the algae. We make the DHA product in a matter of days.”
While the factory is up and running, the product is still in the early stages of distribution, says Oliveira. Terra Via recently announced a commercial supply agreement the BioMar Group, an aquaculture feed supplier. BioMar will launch a sustainable fish feed using AlgaPrime DHA.
“We’re dealing with a few selected customers around the world to refine, and define, how we are going to go to market with it. The factory is operating, it can produce the product. We have product in warehouses. We’re just being very selective about the customers at this stage.”
Terra Via and Bunge are particularly proud of the fact that their joint venture in Brazil is run sustainably: sugar cane waste from the mill is used as the biomass to produce the energy to power both the mill and the co-located algae facility.
“That resonates to everybody, beyond the fish feed manufacturers,” says Oliveira. “It resonates with fish farmers and it resonates with retail chains that sell fish to consumers who are interested in knowing their environmental impact and the sustainability of the business.”
— Matt Jones