Aquaculture: Biotech Innovations Fueling a Sustainable Food Revolution

As the world grapples with the challenges of food security, the spotlight turns to aquaculture, a sustainable solution to meet the growing demand for protein. Aquaculture, or fish farming, is not just about rearing fish; it's a crucial part of our global food system, offering a ray of hope in addressing food inflation and environmental concerns.

The Rising Tide of Aquaculture

The global food landscape is undergoing a transformation, with aquaculture, or fish farming, leading the charge. As traditional food sources face inflationary pressures, aquaculture offers a sustainable and efficient alternative. Projections from Rabobank and the Global Seafood Alliance indicate a bright future for this industry, particularly in the salmon sector, with the global fish farming market poised to grow from ~US$306.9 billion in 2023 to around US$504.8 billion by 2032

Biotech Innovations Paving the Way

Biotech and agricultural market developers are at the forefront of addressing the challenges in aquaculture. For instance, field trials being launched for immunocontraception in farmed rainbow trout, aiming to control reproduction and enhance fish growth. This innovation uses patented technology to develop vaccines that are gentle and animal-friendly.

Another large pharma company recently acquired the aqua business of a competitor, strengthening its portfolio of aquatic health products for a whopping $1.3 billion. This acquisition includes DNA-based vaccines and anti-parasitic treatments, showcasing the industry's focus on health management and disease prevention in aquaculture.

Addressing Challenges and Embracing Opportunities

The aquaculture industry, while poised for growth, faces a myriad of challenges, including climate-related risks such as El Niño, which can lead to increased temperatures and incidents of algal blooms, resulting in higher mortalities. Biological issues, such as sea lice outbreaks, have also caused significant problems, as seen in the west of Iceland, where large-scale mortalities occurred.

Despite these challenges, there is optimism for growth in key species like shrimp, tilapia, pangasius, sea bream, and sea bass. However, consumer preferences for premium seafood species could potentially decelerate tilapia growth.

Countries like Turkey, China, and Vietnam are expected to drive production growth, with technological advancements and government support playing crucial roles. For example, Vietnam has instituted a national program to develop effective and sustainable aquaculture while proactively adapting to climate change, with the goal of reaching seven million tonnes of aquaculture production by 2030. China is developing various forms of offshore aquaculture, with plans to expand its offshore aquaculture to yield almost 400,000 tonnes of seafood.

The industry also faces uncertainties over market prices and the effects of persistent inflation on seafood demand. Elevated costs and stagnating household incomes pose major challenges for consumers, who may opt for lower-priced protein options. Aquafeed costs remain an area of concern, but initiatives like the Protein Industries Canada project (more on that below) aim to develop high-protein canola meal for aquaculture feed, which could help address this issue.

The Role of Aquafeed and Protein Sources

Aquafeed costs remain a concern in the aquaculture industry, but innovative projects are underway to develop sustainable and cost-effective feed options. A recent $31 million investment by Protein Industries Canada, along with agro-industry leaders, aims to increase the demand and market opportunities for high-protein canola, sunflower protein, and novel oilbody products. This project will support the commercialization of high-protein canola meal for use in the aquaculture, feed, and food sectors, as well as improve sunflower protein characteristics for plant-based food applications.

The development of high-quality, high-protein products is expected to enhance the competitiveness and profitability of Canadian canola and sunflower in both domestic and international markets. This initiative demonstrates the commitment of Protein Industries Canada and its partners to position Canada as a leader in sustainable food and feed production. The project will also foster new economic opportunities and create jobs for Canadians, contributing to the growth and success of the agricultural sector.

The FAO's Goals for Aquaculture

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations emphasizes the vital role of aquaculture in providing a sustainable food source for a growing world population. With the Global Roadmap for Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2), the FAO aims to enhance food security and eliminate all forms of malnutrition without breaching the 1.5°C threshold. This roadmap outlines 120 actions and key milestones across ten domains, including fisheries and aquaculture.

Aquatic food is recognized as a nutritional powerhouse, rich in protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamins. Given its low greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint, aquatic food is seen as crucial in the dietary shift to mitigate emissions. The FAO also highlights the importance of aquaculture in supporting millions of jobs and bolstering local economies, especially in coastal regions. Among the actions called for are improving the productivity of aquaculture, fostering guidance on good aquaculture practices (GAPs), enhancing technology adoption in aquaculture, and improving policies for small-scale aquaculture. These initiatives are expected to have a significant impact on food security and the economies of coastal communities globally.