By Michiel Fransen, ASC’s Standards Coordinator and Secretary of the Responsible Feed Project
When we try to define what responsible aquaculture means, most people usually only think of farm level impacts but there’s more to it before ASC certified products reach the end consumer. It’s no secret that most of the farmed seafood species need feed in order to complete their growth cycle. This makes feed one of the most essential components of fish farming and also a major contributor to the overall environmental impact of aquaculture.
If we take a look at the annual operating expenses that a farmer pays, we find that around 40 to 60 per cent are for feed. This factor is a key driver of innovation in feed composition and in the increased efficiency of its use.
The ingredients puzzle
Innovation in feed composition requires careful analysis to ensure that the required nutrients, which can come from many different ingredients, are delivered when the fish needs them; how much of any nutrient differs according to the species. Several examples of ingredients are soya, palm oil, fishmeal, fish oil, corn, rice, and wheat. Unfortunately, their production process can have negative environmental and social impacts that need to be minimised.
ASC feed standard
To reduce the impacts associated with feed the ASC aims to create a standard that sets out requirements for the aquaculture feed industry to operate on a more environmentally and socially responsible basis. We aim to have the feed standard ready for the end of 2015.
In developing this standard ingredients, such as soy, palm oil, other vegetable and animal ingredients and micro-nutrients are all being reviewed to consider how their impacts can be minimised.
Two other aquaculture certification platforms, Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and GLOBALG.A.P., are also actively involved in developing this standard, along with feed manufacturers, retailers, farmers, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO), and other commodity standard setters including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Oxfam Novib, a social development NGO is also represented.
The feed standard will be applicable beyond the ASC as well as for all ASC certified species. This means that we will cover feed requirements for shrimp, salmon, tilapia, pangasius, sea bass, sea bream and perhaps, in the future, a vast majority of species.
What is essential is that we ensure integrity and a common voice for the industry to respond to the sustainability and social responsibility question concerning feed.
Understanding the feed-related issues
The fish in:fish out ration, the amount of feed fish it takes to grow a kilogram of farmed fish, and the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR), an overall measure of feed efficiency, are both used in the ASC standards. Limits are set for both to promote efficient use of feed within the sector as well as other considerations to minimise the environmental impact of feed pellets not eaten by the farmed fish. The limit for each species is set out in the specific farm standards. For most species the FCR is between 1 and 2 (so, between 1 and 2 kg of feed are needed to produce 1 kg of fish), but there are also species which go above 2, and species that perform below a FCR of 1. Compare this to the production of pig (FCR 3:1), cattle (FCR 5-20:1) or even chicken (FCR 2:1) and you quickly realise that fish are a very efficient converter of feed.
However, there are several factors that can influence the FCR that a farm can achieve. Examples are type of feed, feeding strategy, water quality, temperature, etc. Within the ASC Farm Standards the maximum FCR for a specific species is determined. It is then up to the farmer to manage their farm in such a manner that it stays below this limit.
You then have the discussion on the use of marine fish (in the form of fish meal and fish oil) for the production of cultured fish. This is a very emotive issue that is subject to much debate. Some people argue that there should be less fish meal and oil in the feed and they want to substitute it with more plant ingredients, while others argue that if we reduce or eliminate the fish meal and the fish oil ingredients, we have to increase the number of soya, which can create other issues such as increasing the environmental pressure on our rainforests as well as the GMO debate.
It is not a solution to shift to plant ingredients to ‘solve’ problems related to fisheries, since plant ingredient production also has its own specific issues to address.
A number of feed ingredients are under real pressure of overexploitation and most of them have reached the maximum of their capacity. Together we need to find a solution to deal with those resources in such a way that we can also use them in the future.
Helping to reduce the environmental footprint
The challenge is to identify those practices that produce in a responsible manner.
ASC’s role in the feed project is not to influence the debate but to reflect best practice in the standard: that is a level that can only be achieved by the top 15-20 per cent of industry when the standard is released. And, it will be the feed project’s steering committee and working group members who will help develop the requirements that will make up the ASC Feed Standard based on their expertise.
Undoubtedly, this standard will help in moving the aquaculture industry towards more environmentally and socially responsible practices. Broad adoption of the standard will require industry improvements and strong commitment. This will encourage innovation by the producers of the main ingredients used in aquaculture feed production.
With a growing aquaculture sector the demand for feed will grow. Through this standard we can offer the sector a means to reduce the environmental and social impact of their feed use. And, the feed standard will ensure that there is consistency in the way the aquaculture feed industry is asked to address the sustainability and social responsibility issues concerning feed.
My secret hope is that the standard will reach other industries in the future, which will of course be beneficial because they use exactly the same ingredients only in different ratios and volumes. Feed production for pigs, chickens and cattle is much bigger compared to aquafeed production. But, for now, we focus on aquafeed, and take one step at a time.