You’ve heard the predictions – the world’s population is supposed to climb to a staggering 9 billion people by the year 2050, increasing the pressure on the 2 percent of Americans who farm today to produce food, feed, fiber and fuel. You’ve also heard about many of the efforts your soy checkoff makes to support U.S. soybean farmers in meeting this demand. But did you know that some of this support takes place not in your fields, but in water?
By 2030, an additional 41 million tons of aquatic species per year will be needed to maintain current per capita levels of seafood consumption. And, as consumer tastes for seafood grow, so does the aquaculture industry’s preference for U.S. soy.
The checkoff, along with various industry partners, are working hard to make sure the future is bright for U.S. soybean farmers and the aquaculture clients they serve.
“The members of the Soy Aquaculture Alliance (SAA), including the United Soybean Board (USB), the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) and the International Soy in Aquaculture Program, are getting more and more soybean meal used every year in aquaculture,” says Mike Beard, Indiana soybean farmer and USB’s liaison to the SAA. “But it doesn’t stop at diet; we’re also funding research, relevant to soybean meal, to improve technology, make farmers more efficient and improve sustainability.”
These groups share a common goal of increasing use of soy-based feeds in global aquaculture. For instance, the International Soy in Aquaculture Program is currently funding international aquaculture marketing projects which are increasing soy protein’s use in aquafeeds – projects are underway across the globe, as far away as Asia, where over 80% of the world’s aquaculture is produced.
The soy checkoff is also funding several research projects here at home, being led by researchers at Auburn University. And while these projects are specific to fish, they hold many similarities to research projects that the checkoff funds related to soybean meal’s more traditional users – poultry and swine.
“The same investments that improve profitability for livestock farmers on land are applicable to improving profitability for fish farmers, and soybean farmers as a result,” Beard adds.
Getting Hooked on Soy
Soybeans are one of the best non-fish sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids, healthy protein and unsaturated fats – not just for humans, but for fish as well. According to Terry Hanson, Ph.D., aquaculture and natural resource economist at Auburn University, soy can replace between one-third and one-half of the fish meal (the staple of traditional aquaculture diets) in aquaculture rations, depending on the species. This reduces the need for aquaculture producers to source wild-caught fish. It also improves their sustainability.
In addition, soybean meal offers several other benefits, including:
- It’s significantly less expensive than fish meal.
- It’s easy to digest.
- It’s consistently available in broad supply.
- It produces a consistent product for fish farmers, who in turn produce a consistent product for restaurants, grocery stores and diners.
“The monies that we’re investing in aquaculture research are paying great dividends,” Beard says, “as the results support the value of feeding fish more soy, which presents an obvious opportunity for U.S. soybean farmers. More and more, the industry is learning that soybean meal is a viable and accessible alternative to fish meal. It’s a win-win, both internationally and domestically.”
Hanson agrees that these investments could provide great returns for U.S. soybean farmers.
“Simply put, more aquaculture entails more fish,” he says. “More fish need more soybean meal. And more soybean meal means more profit potential for U.S. soybean farmers.”
Hanson’s colleague in the Auburn University School of Fisheries agrees. “The aquaculture industry is similar to other animal industries that started out using other feeds, but have moved to primarily soy-based feeds,” says Allen Davis, Ph.D., Aquatic Animal Nutrition, School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, Auburn University . “Soybean meal in aquaculture is quickly becoming one of the primary protein sources of fish feeds, and aquaculture is expected to continue to grow at around 8 percent per year. Soy use is also expected to increase as the industry grows and feeds are developed.”
U.S. Aquaculture by the Numbers
Just how big is the U.S. aquaculture industry? In 2013, sales of aquaculture products in the U.S. totaled $1.4 billion, according to the 2013 Census of Aquaculture.* 48 states produce and sell aquaculture items, but three of these – Washington, Mississippi and Alabama – accounted for 40 percent of sales in the U.S.
In total, there are more than 3,000 aquaculture farms throughout the country. But aquaculture is more than just fish. U.S. farmers also use water to raise algae, alligators, caviar, eels, frogs, sea urchins, snails, tadpoles, turtles and more.
There are more than 100 species of fish raised on farms in the United States, but channel catfish in the Southeast and rainbow trout in the West swim to the top. While the U.S. is home to hundreds of thousands of soybean farmers, there are only about 600 catfish farmers nationwide.
“This makes it a relatively close-knit and influential group,” says Hanson. “Because it’s a relatively small group, there are lots of opportunities to get involved with research issues and industry organizations who work to improve the welfare and understanding of the industry on a state and national level and throughout all levels of the aquaculture value chain.”
Other industry organizations also see big growth potential for U.S. soy, based on supply and demand for aquaculture. “Global aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing sectors for the soy industry,” says Tom Hammer, president, National Oilseed Processors Association. “They are very specialized. Every species of fish needs a different combination of protein. You can’t feed a shrimp the same as a tilapia.”
But, the vast majority of fish can assimilate soybean meal, which is also much easier to obtain, less expensive and more sustainable than fish meal.
“The vast majority of aquaculture feeds have the potential to have soy products in them,” Davis says.
Currently, 92 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, making this a huge growth opportunity for domestic aquaculture producers.
“As American consumers become increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, I predict a positive awareness of U.S. aquaculture will grow,” Hanson says. “U.S. farmers already adhere to some of the strictest regulations in the world. This emphasis on food safety at the farm level makes me believe aquaculture will be highlighted more and more. As consumers learn more about the fish they eat, they will understand that U.S.-produced fish products are tasty, safe, nutritious and environmentally sustainable.”