The new frontier for Big Agriculture is aquaculture

Get ready for Big Acq?
Get ready for Big Acq?
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Forget beef, bread, and beans. Growth from factory farming will increasingly come not from the land, but from the sea. The latest sign comes from a bid by Cargill, the agriculture giant, to buy a leading Norwegian salmon-feed supplier for just shy of €1.4 billion ($1.5 billion). If successful, the deal will make Cargill one of the top three aquaculture feed suppliers in the world.

How did this business get so attractive?

The volume of fish caught in the wild has plateaued since the 1980s, due both to overfishing and conservation efforts.

As wild-caught fish volumes have stagnated, aquaculture has been stealthily catching up. By 2023, we’ll produce more fish from aquaculture than from the wild, according to calculations by the OECD and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Cargill clearly is getting on top of this trend. Its first foray into aquaculture was just last month, when it started working with Naturisa, a huge supplier of shrimp feed, to develop a $30 million factory in Ecuador (paywall). Cargill is not alone; in 2014, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp bought Cermaq ASA, a leading Norwegian salmon farmer, for 88.9 billion kroner ($1.4 billion).

First, the good news about this Big Ag aquaculture shift: As sources of protein, fish are way more efficient to raise than other leading sources of protein. Cattle and pigs require huge amounts of grain and water to grow big enough to eat. Producing a pound of beef, for instance, requires 15 times more feed than a pound of carp, a freshwater fish. The conserved food and water in theory could feed people instead.

The bad news: aquaculture can still cause overfishing.

Fishes’ nutritional value is thanks largely to their natural diet—i.e. other fish. For instance, salmon don’t actually produce the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids they’re so famed for. Those come from a lifetime spent munching krill. (These ruddy-colored critters also give salmon meat its incarnadine tinge, which is why farmed salmon are fed “pigmenting supplements” to turn their meat from gray to pink.)

To pack farmed fish with the nutrition that sells, companies process titanic volumes of wild-caught species into fishmeal, a kind of Soylent green for fish. Nearly a quarter of the volume of wild-caught fish misses human plates altogether—mainly to feed other fish. Some of that comes from fish parts that humans don’t eat. But about two-thirds of fishmeal comes from sardines, anchovies, and other small fish.

Overfishing these little guys can devastate ecosystems. Without this critical food-chain layer, bigger animals go hungry, while the species that sardines and anchovies prey on explode. One cautionary tale: the rampant plunder of sardines and anchovies off Namibia’s coast from the 1960s to the 1990s invited a surge in jellyfish and a nearly 80% nosedive in penguin numbers.

To preserve both ocean health and profits, the name of the game for scientists is to pioneer alternative sources of fishmeal. Big Ag’s money and experience could spur such innovation. Without it, fishing stocks risk being dangerously strained.