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Published February 24, 2014, 09:22 AM

Soybean industry plans aquaculture promotion

SEATTLE — The U.S. needs to develop a much larger aquaculture industry based on feeding fish soybeans and other plants to meet the growing demand for fish in the U.S. and other countries in the coming years.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

SEATTLE — The U.S. needs to develop a much larger aquaculture industry based on feeding fish soybeans and other plants to meet the growing demand for fish in the U.S. and other countries in the coming years.

That is the provocative goal of the Coalition for U.S. Seafood Production, a soybean-industry led group whose formation was announced in Seattle recently, on the sidelines of the World Aquaculture Society meeting.

The coalition, to be known by the acronym CUSP, is an outgrowth of the Soy Aquaculture Alliance, which has been funded for several years by the United Soybean Board and state checkoffs, to create a bigger market for fish food made from soybeans.

“We believe establishing relationships and building connections among soy, aquaculture and seafood value chain stakeholders is crucial to helping aquaculture catch on,” says Steven Hart, the executive director of the Indiana-based Soy Aquaculture Alliance. “This is imperative as wild-capture fish production cannot sustainably meet the rising global demand for seafood in the decades ahead.”

A substantial market already exists for plant-based fish food in the U.S. catfish and farm-raised trout and tilapia industries, but the big market for soybean-based fish food is overseas in Chile, Norway and developing countries where big fish farms are located.

CUSP, whose members include the soybean industry, aquaculture farmers, customers such as Darden Restaurants and academics involved in fish research, will encourage the executive branch and Congress to help expand U.S. aquaculture, Hart says.

The coalition’s goals are supported by a recent report by the World Bank, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Food Policy Research Institute predicting that by 2030, 62 percent of fish for human food will come from aquaculture because fish catches in the wild are expected to level off amid rising demand for low-cost protein from a growing middle class, especially in China.

The FAO also found that the U.S. has some of the world’s best potential locations for offshore fish farming.

But U.S. aquaculture faces a range of regulatory issues involving the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s various research agencies, Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. State and local governments are also involved in permitting fish farms.

Environmentalists often ring alarm bells about the dangers of fish farming because of pollution and escapes, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose seafood watch advises consumers on what fish to eat, has endorsed it as long as production standards are high.

Aquaculture industry officials, meanwhile, warn that if authorities in the U.S. do not approve facilities, the industry will expand in other countries where permitting is easier.

Lobbying to date

The coalition has already met with Obama administration officials andwith some members of Congress, and says it has convinced the administration to create a place for aquaculture in a new oceans policy.

Hart says that although the group was told there would be no specific mention of aquaculture in the policy, when the report came out three weeks later, it was included in several places.

“As a group, we are not doing enough to encourage aquaculture development,” Hart says. “Members of Congress say they have never heard about it and ask why the industry is not doing more.”

Hart says the coalition’s goals include finalizing a fishery management plan for marine aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico, reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevenson Marine Fisheries Management Act, which guides NOAA’s activities related to aquaculture, and declaration of aquaculture as a “specialty crop” in the next farm bill, which would qualify it for certain USDA programs.

Beverly Paul, a lobbyist for the American Soybean Association, says Washington officials had regarded soybean farmers lobbying on aquaculture development more as “a curiosity” than a lobbying force, but that the group had made remarkable progress in the past year.

Paul also notes that aquaculture enthusiasts should be aware that the soybean industry faces two short-term challenges outside aquaculture: EPA’s proposal to limit the mandate for biodiesel production and FDA’s proposal to ban transfats, which could lead to the replacement of soybean oil with palm oil.

“When one sector is challenged, the rest of the industry needs to step forward,” Paul says.

Successes, opportunities and challenges

Aquaculture has expanded so rapidly that the price of soymeal has risen from $200 per metric ton to almost $1,000 per ton, says Bill Bayliss, an Ohio soybean grower who is vice chair of the Soy Aquaculture Alliance.

“Soy is the No. 1 global aquafeed,” adds Mike Beard, a Frankfurt, Ind., soybean farmer and director of the United Soybean Board.

Beard says the USB wants to increase the value of soybeans by funding research on fish that can be bred in captivity, for which hatchery technology is fully developed, that will eat pelleted feed at an early stage and throughout its life, are tolerant of crowding, and for which there is a good market demand.

USB has already paid for research on cages in which to grow fish and for feed research, he notes.

There also would appear to be many geographical opportunities for the coalition’s goal of expanding the farming of other fish off the coast of the U.S., as well as in ponds and tanks.