Methane: the future of fish feed?

Signal of change / Methane: the future of fish feed?

By Gillian Phair / 14 May 2015

FeedKind is a new fish and animal feedstock product which uses methane gas, partially from gas pipelines and partially in the form of biogas released from the anaerobic digestion of waste organic material. This product is currently in pre-production phase, and will be released into the European feedstock markets from the beginning of 2018. 

The manufacturing process is called natural proprietary fermentation, and is very similar to the way in which Marmite and other yeast-extract sandwich spreads are produced.

Initially, natural gas will be the primary input. However, the company asserts that where possible, they will aim to purchase renewable sources of gas, from anaerobic digesters and landfill biogas producers. 

In this process, methane is collected and used as the breeding grounds for Methylococcus capsulatus, a naturally occurring single cell organism. The methane acts as their main source of carbon and energy, allowing these organisms to grow and produce protein. This creates a high quality microbial bio protein that can be harvested, dried and pelletized ready for the market. The production ratio is one tonne of protein produced per one tonne of gas.

This process was initially developed in the 1980s and tested by groups such as JV, Statoil and Dupont. However, their plans eventually spun out because this product was not commercially viable at the time.  In 2014, US-based company Calysta bought the patent to the process. They are the only company taking hold of this process at the moment, under the brand name FeedKind. Because of the low price of gas, the product will be cost-competitive to other feed-sources.

Image caption: Gas guzzling protein producer

Image credit: Masakazu Matsumoto / Flickr

So what?

FeedKind offers an alternative to conventional fish feed products like fishmeal and soy protein, which can put pressure on land and wild marine fish populations. Its production uses minimal land and water and it is a non-GMO food source. Alan Shaw, CEO and President of Calysta, notes that can this feedstock can “minimize impact on the environment and contribute to food security” and “contribute to the aquaculture industry’s need for sustainable products to meet increasing global demand for new sources of protein.”

Demand for fisheries has been growing at 6-8% a year. However, the global production of fishmeal has been steady at 5 million tonnes a year, as limited by the number of global fisheries. This divergence has put pressure on fish prices.

The potential for this product is huge, given that it gained EU approval in 2011 for consumption in not only fish, but all other animal groups except humans. At moment this development is just a plan in motion. All going well, production will begin at the end of 2017/start of 2018, where they hope to begin producing 80,000 tonnes of feed annually in Scotland and Norway.

However, while the product itself uses little land and water, the same cannot be said for the production of its primary input of natural gas, which raises many questions for its sustainability. Is it better to produce fish feed which supports natural gas fracking, or produce a conventional feedstock which can reduce numbers of marine and terrestrial species or replace areas of high carbon stocks?

The use of biogas from waste organic matter is a more sustainable option, as the reuse of wasted product towards food production is a closed loop system of materials and energy.

Calysta makes claims to be sustainable by decoupling feed production from demands on land, water and fisheries. However, its current dependence on fossil fuels can also be seen to be increasing the long-term strain on these resources. It begs the question, are the environmental pressures we face in fossil fuel use less pressing than the challenges we face in protein production?

Sources

Interview with Allan LeBlanc by email, conducted by Gillian Phair for the Futures Centre on 1st May 2015

Interview with Simon Pugh by email and phone, conducted by Gillian Phair for the Futures Centre on 5th May 2015

The Economist (2015, April 25) Gas guzzlers

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

I re-read this article because this came up in New Scientist today - https://www.newscientist.com/article/2112298-food-made-from-natural-gas-will-soon-feed-farm-animals-and-us/ - making the same balanced points around the sustainability potential of methane-based fishfood and livestock feed. The first commercial-scale factory is now about to open - using natural gas rather than a more sustainable alternative.
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