Chaired by Professor Brett Glencross, Director of Research at Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, the workshop was attended by a broad range of delegates, including fish producers, aquafeed manufacturers and representatives of the UK retail sector.
Avian proteins have been included in the diets offered to the Canadian, Chilean and Australian salmon farming sectors for more than a decade. Although they are permitted to be used in the EU, concerns persist about consumer acceptance of the idea and they have not been used by British salmon producers since 1997, in the wake of the BSE scare, when feed producers were encouraged to remove land animal proteins (LAPs) from their raw material options.
The Dunblane workshop marked the initial phase of a project – set up last year by companies including Biomar and Morrisons, and part-funded by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) – that was designed to gauge, and perhaps help enhance, consumer acceptance of the idea of their reintroduction into feeds used by the salmon industry in the UK.
Professor Glencross pointed out the numerous advantages of incorporating avian protein – “a great supply of protein and amino acids” – in salmon diets, not to mention that fact that it could provide an efficient use of local feed resources and one less subject to the vagaries of global politics – pointing to the fall in the value of the pound in the wake of the Brexit vote and how this hit those importing commodities such as fishmeal and soy protein concentrate (SPC) pretty hard.
He also mentioned the sustainability benefits of using the avian by-products and pointed to his native Australia, where feeds typically contain higher content of LAPs than fish-based ones – a fact that is celebrated by salmon farmers such as Tassal, who proudly flag it up “as an overt part of their sustainability policy”.
He was followed by a selection of speakers many of whom presented data that seemed to strengthen his case, Kim Swindells from UK rendering organization Fabra, pointed out that 127,756 tonnes of rendered poultry proteins would be available in the UK alone. This could, Professor Glencross observed, provide a large chunk of the 270,000 tonnes of feeds consumed by the UK salmon industry annually – considerably more than the 40,000 tonnes of fishmeal and 10,000 tonnes of fish oil produced domestically in the UK each year.
The next talk was delivered by Dr Karolina Kwasek, from Biomar UK, who evaluated some of the alternative alternative protein sources – including krill, calanus (zooplankton found in abundance in extreme northern latitudes) and insects. Interestingly, attitudes amongst those assembled were particularly sceptical of the potential offered by insects such as black soldier fly larvae, despite the fact that meal from these is due to be allowed to be included in aquafeeds within the EU before the end of the year.
“I understand their value as a bioremediation tool [for upcycling domestic food waste] but to use protein [to feed them] to extract less protein seems like lunacy,” reflected Dr Glencross.
As for the use of LAPs in salmon feeds, Dr Kwasek pointed out that their value was both supported by scientific literature – such as papers by Liland et al (2015) and LG Foster (1991) – and also through their long-term practical commercial application in feeds in the likes of Canada, Chile and Australia.
However, she also listed the number of hurdles that need to be crossed for any alternative protein sources – including ensuring/generating customer acceptance, enforcing rigorous traceability standards, ensuring a steady availability, conducting trials to show their nutritional composition and ascertaining the price that feeds containing avian proteins could be produced for/sold at.
Consumer perception dominated talks by Professors Dave Little and Johnathan Napier. The former, from Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, outlined the results of a study which compared attitudes towards the inclusion of avian proteins to that of Calysta’s methane-fed microbial protein FeedKind in feeds and found that consumers appeared very willing to back the use of LAPs, suggesting that “there’s a real case for making the information available to consumers” and that there was already “support from eNGOs [for the idea], but it was not being embraced by retailers”.
“You’re pushing an open door…the direction of travel is there,” he urged.
Professor Napier’s talk echoed some of these sentiments and, in particular, he emphasized the importance of getting on the front foot when it comes to launching any new and potentially controversial idea into the public domain. As a man who’s been involved in GM research at Rothamstead Research for the best part of two decades he was able to speak with considerable authority, as well as humour, on the subject.
To illustrate his point, he outlined the public and media reaction to a trial of wheat which had been genetically modified to become more resistant to insects, in May 2012. Protesters cottoned on to the idea before the institute had launched any publicity campaign, which caused all manner of negative publicity – requiring the institute to erect chain link fences around the field trial area and leading to the mobilization of almost 350 police officers to keep the expected wave of protesters (only a handful actually materialized) at bay.
Two years later, by the time Professor Napier’s own field trial of GM camelina – which had been modified to produce long chain omega-3s for the aquafeed industry – was ready to take place, the institute decided to take a far more proactive approach.
“This time we were on the front foot,” he reflected, “and were much more proactive in our publicity and much more positive headlines – the fact that we’d featured on BBC’s Countryfile meant that people were hard-pressed to describe us as covert.”
The day ended with a lively discussion between those present about the relative merits of poultry products, a chance to mull over alternative alternatives to staples such as fishmeal and soy protein concentrate (SPC) and ways to convey the possibilities offered by using aquafeeds containing avian products.
Although there was by no means unanimous support for the project – one retailer raised the possibility of their use harming consumer perception, while a feed manufacturer referenced tests in which fish fed diets containing LAPs appeared to more susceptible to ISA – there was a general feeling in the room that they do represent a huge untapped resource: one which has the potential to boost the sector’s sustainability credentials and perhaps also save the industry, and consumers, a few pounds in the process.
News about whether the project enters its second phase is expected to be announced soon.