F3’s shrimp winner: The challenge is to achieve a better price

Shrimp category winner Empagran found no major differences in its vegetarian diets compared to commercial diets and pointed to price as the real challenge.

Pablo Intriago, technical advisor at Empagran
October 5, 2022

The F3 — Future of Fish Feed announced today the three winners of the F3 Challenge - Carnivore Edition. The Ecuadorian company Empagran won for its vegetarian recipe that replaces fishmeal with soybean meal and fish oil with Veramaris’ algal oil rich in both EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids for Pacific white shrimp.

We spoke with Pablo Intriago, technical advisor at Empagran, and Jorge Torres from Veramaris, about the feed performance and its future prospects.

AQ: Tell us about your company and its sustainability focus.

PI: Empagran is a 100% Ecuadorian group dedicated to aquaculture and operating since 1975. Its sustainability focus is based on a fully integrated operation with more than 3,300 hectares in Ecuador and Colombia, hatcheries, packing plants and a feed plant (ABA) with a production capacity of 140,000 TM of feed per year. Empagran is in constant pursuit of improving its CO2 footprint, improving the efficiency of its pumping stations, reducing water intake, developing recirculation systems to reduce water discharge or owing more than 3,000 automatic feeders with solar panels.

JT: Headquartered in Delft, the Netherlands, Veramaris is a joint venture between DSM and Evonik. Veramaris natural marine algal oil contains the highest levels of EPA & DHA Omega-3 on the global market today and is the first microalgae oil producer for feed to achieve joint ASC-MSC certification.

This year we also committed to reducing our Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by setting a science-based target which has been approved by the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) aimed at urgently limiting global warming to below 1.5°C. Veramaris will achieve a 38% reduction in absolute Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2030 from a 2021 base year. We recognize that through our own commitment to decarbonize, it helps customers address their Scope 3 emissions while also creating additional transparency in their supply chains.

AQ: What ingredients did your company use to replace fishmeal and fish oil? Was the extrusion process affected by these new formulas?

PI: ABA the feed plant/division of Empagran has been using alternative ingredients and byproducts for the past 15 years. Besides soybean meal (SBM), the main protein source, we have used different plant proteins, such as sunflower meal, camelina meal, guar korma, guar meal, DDGS and corn gluten meal. We have also used single-cell protein derived from Corynebacterium glutamicum. Free amino acids are also a good alternative to compensate for amino acid deficiency. When feeding marine species, fishmeal can be replaced with SBM, however, the oil fraction which is rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids, such as 20:5w3 and 22:6w3 and in some species 20:4w6, is a challenge. After studying the market, our choice was Veramaris oil. We have not found any change in the concentration nor the bioavailability of these ingredients during pelleting or extrusion.

AQ: Where were the ingredients sourced from? What are the main constraints in terms of ingredient supply?

PI: Most of the SBM and starch sources (wheat) are imported and that is a challenge in Ecuador. To improve the sustainability of the aquaculture industry, we need to start reducing the dependence to import these ingredients.

JT: Veramaris can provide our customers a fully traceable and consistent quality omega-3 oil, free from contaminants and of the same high quality 365 days a year, 24/7.

AQ: What has been the shrimp performance achieved so far? Do you plan to test or commercialize fish-free feeds for other aquaculture species?

PI: We have tested our vegetarian diet (zero marine or animal ingredients) with no major differences in yields up to 4 MT per hectare compared to standard diets. However, our feeling is that it could be better to sacrifice a bit the production yields and harvest a better-quality product. Now the real challenge as an industry is to achieve a better price.

Empagran has already manufactured more than 2,000 MT of animal-free feed. It was used on our own farms and in selected customers. We also manufacture tilapia feed that has been free of fishmeal in the past 12 years.

AQ: Did you find any palatability issues? Have your formulas had an impact on the final fillet quality? From your point of view, what is the main nutritional issue to solve to increase shrimp performance utilizing your formula?

PI: One advantage of feeding shrimp is that the composition of its tail is mostly protein and water, and proteins are all the same regardless of the source. On the other hand, the fat concentration of shrimp tail is so low that its source does not affect palatability. However, we must work on the bioavailability of plant protein sources. Shrimp gut passage is so short that any anti-nutritional factors can affect the digestibility and hence growth rate. The use of fermented proteins, probiotics and phytobiotics can reduce this problem.

JT: Farmed shrimp have nutritional requirements which impact health, resilience and profitability. Not meeting these requirements comes at a cost for the farmer. The success of the F3 Challenge shows that we are able to provide a nutritionally complete diet while decoupling from earlier reliance on marine ingredients. Veramaris recently published Optimum Omega Nutrition™ (OON) white paper for shrimp which shows new results under controlled conditions leading to excellent performance and sensory characteristics for ‘fish free shrimp’. That being said, there are ample opportunities in the market for shrimp with the product specifications that retailers and shoppers are looking for.

AQ: Are these formulas cost-effective and competitive with standard feeds?

PI: The price of replacing traditional ingredients such as fishmeal and fish oil with biotechnological products, such as Veramaris oil, is much higher. Convincing farmers and wholesalers that this product is worth a better price is a real challenge.

JT: When optimum levels of EPA and DHA nutrients are specified in the feed formulation, algal oil containing both EPA & DHA can be the most cost-effective way to meet these constraints. Much depends on the variable quality, availability and price of conventional omega-3 sources compared to the consistent and reliable performance of algal oil as a feed ingredient.

That being said, in today’s environment it’s about de-risking the supply chain and that should be top of mind for the shrimp sector. Feed price inflation has been severe in part due to a reduced availability of feed materials. As a result, feed formulators and farmers are exposed to supply shocks. When it comes to the consistent availability of EPA & DHA omega-3, farmers risk sub-optimal nutrition.

Innovative feed alternatives are already being used to do just that with the added benefit of improving health, productivity as well as sustainability. The salmon sector has already started taking action and we’re seeing large feed millers and farmers including innovations like ours while, at the same time, we are seeing retailers starting to deepen their sustainability efforts by looking back up the supply chain all the way to feed.

AQ: Who are your current farm partners?

PI: ABA main partner is Empagran with 2,300 hectares in Ecuador and more than 1,000 hectares in Colombia.

JT: We have a global market in aquaculture, from the salmon farms of Norway and Scotland in the North to those in Chile in the South. Today, our algal oil is used to grow shrimp, salmon, trout, steelhead trout, yellowtail, largemouth bass, seabream, and seabass. We now have customers around the globe.

AQ: What are the future expectations in terms of supply and markets for your fish-free feed?

PI: The free-fish feed market is still to be developed. Empagran through ABA made a huge step in pioneering its production but the wholesalers and the final consumers must prioritize their needs. Some wholesalers interested in this product have requested that the product also needs to be GMO free. If the price is a constraint, developing a product free of fishmeal and fish oil and non-GMO at the same price is impossible. The public should also be educated that more than 90% of soybean meal in the market is GMO, the non-GMO product almost doubles the price and is difficult to find. Most importantly, there is not enough product available for everybody.

JT: The aquaculture sector will continue to grow but so will the pressure for it to do transparently and sustainably. We expect a stronger focus on improving animal health and welfare across the aquaculture sector for both shrimp and fish to improve survival rates. The science has shown us that a diet rich in both EPA & DHA omega-3 plays a significant role in the health and therefore productivity outcomes for farmed seafood.