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Cargill fishes for innovations in sustainable salmon farming

Cargill eyes a 30 percent reduction in emissions from aquafeed by incorporating insect protein, plant-based nutrition, fish scraps and increasing overall fish health.

sea with salmon nets

Ninety percent of environmental footprint of salmon production comes from the feed. Cargill is investing in bringing that down.

Cargill’s new sustainability program, SeaFuther, expands its carbon reduction commitments from the terrestrial to the oceanic. The commitment focuses on Cargill’s aquaculture and aquaculture feed business, targeting a reduction in Scope 3 emissions of 30 percent by 2030, from a 2017 baseline. 

As sustainable and environmentally friendly diets increase in popularity, the seafood market is projected to reach almost $200 billion by 2027. In 2019, it was recorded at a little under $160 billion, a projected compound annual growth rate of 2.5 percent. To keep up, the aquafeed market is projected to reach $80 billion by then, double the compound annual growth rate of seafood at 5.3 percent. As one of the largest aquafeed producers, Cargill is a key player in reducing emissions. Cargill’s program will start with salmon farmers mostly in Norway and Scotland.

"Salmon is very efficient, from a carbon perspective, protein to begin with," said Heather Tansey, sustainability lead for animal nutrition and health at Cargill. "And therefore feed is one of the biggest aspects of that overall footprint."

In 2018, salmon aquaculture peaked at 2.68 million metric tons of salmon produced globally and farmed salmon accounts for 74 percent of all salmon production. According to Tansey, feed represents 90 percent of salmon production’s environmental footprint. As a comparison, research indicates that feed only represents about 20 percent of overall carbon emissions for beef production.

Inside its own aquaculture operations, Cargill is focusing on switching to feed ingredients that have less of a carbon footprint, Tansey said. The aquafeed division is focusing on increasing the percentage of fish trimmings used in its feed to 40 percent. Fish trimmings are the leftover pieces of fish from cutting fillets for human consumption. 

While this is a great goal that should be championed, it is already a pretty common practice, according to Tyler Isaac, senior aquaculture scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, a nonprofit leader in sustainable seafood. 

"In salmon, I would be surprised if there were salmon feeds being produced now, with zero percent inclusions of byproduct ingredients," Issac said. "In many cases, it simply makes economic sense. But it’s growing and continuing to expand, and we like to see that."

Cargill is focusing on switching to feed ingredients that have less of a carbon footprint.

Focusing on novel, more sustainable ingredients is the next innovation in Cargill’s feed production journey. In 2019, Cargill partnered with InnovaFeed, a startup focusing on bringing plant-based and insect proteins to animal and fish feeds. Cargill is funding a pilot program with InnovaFeed to bring insect protein fish food to a commercial level. 

"We are working on scaling it," Tansey said. "It's a newer practice that we really want to invest in."

Other leaders in the aquafeed space are exploring alternative feeds as well. Archer-Daniels-Midland is hopping on the insect train with InnovaFeed and also working with Pancosma to create supplements that increase the availability of essential nutrients such as zinc and iron that are difficult to unlock in plant-based feeds.

But switching to plant-based ingredients must be done carefully with broader sustainability practices in mind, Isaac said. 

"Oftentimes, the carbon footprint of a plant-based ingredient [in fish feed] is related to something like deforestation," he said. "Where if you cut down a part of the Amazon to grow soybeans, you lose the carbon sequestration potential of that rainforest." 

According to Tansey, Cargill’s sustainability team plans to work closely with its raw materials department to evaluate soy and wheat suppliers for regenerative farming practices and encourage or switch to farmers with more sustainable models.

Looking past Cargill’s internal operations, the company also plans to work with and advise its aquaculture farming customers directly. Cargill wants to help salmon farmers increase their productivity by keeping the fish healthy with good nutrition. 

"We create customized formulations that really help the farmers optimize their system," Tansey said. "The salmon farmers are working in different conditions, they may have different stressors or different challenges that their farms are facing." 

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